Thursday, September 22, 2011

Hebrew Insights into Parashot Nitzavim and Va’yelech – D’varim (Deuteronomy)

Hebrew Insights into Parashot Nitzavim and Va’yelech – D’varim (Deuteronomy)
29:10-ch. 31

This week’s Parashat Nitzavim may be subtitled “The Hebrew People - A Testimony of the Covenant and of the Promises.” Although Nitzavim is translated, "You stand…" - it actually means "standing in position, standing firmly, or taking a stand," the root being (yod, tzadi, bet/vet) and the definition is “set, establish or take a stand.[1] According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh, however, the root is tz.v.v (tzadi, vet, vet), and means “cover while moving.” [2] Embodied in this Parasha (as well as in the next, Parashat Va’yelech), is the definition of the nation as well as the ultimate promise of grace.

Two of the terms, which ‘pop up’ more than once, are the verb "avor" (which we have examined previously) and means “to pass, go through, go over, enter,” and the noun and verb forms of "witness or testimony” ("ed"). The Hebrew people, YHVH’s witnesses, are characterized, as we know, by ‘crossing’ or ‘passing over,’ with different aspects of this action being presented here.

First, the people are standing “in position” or “formation”. Why? "That you may enter ("la'avor") the covenant with YHVH your Elohim, and enter into His oath which YHVH your Elohim is making with you today, in order that He may establish you today as His people and that He may be your Elohim, just as He spoke to you and as He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Now not with you alone am I making this covenant and this oath, but both with those who stand here with us today in the presence of YHVH our Elohim and with those who are not with us here today" (29:12-15). Thus, being Hebrews, means first and foremost to "cross over," with the emphasis being on passing/crossing over into the covenant. Notice also the far reaching aspect of the covenant, to those “not with us today” (29:15), thus pointing to the continuity of the people of Yisrael and to generational unity within the boundaries of the covenant. “Covenant” – “brit” – is of the root b.r.t (bet, resh, tav), meaning to “cut." “Making a covenant” – “karot”- is another verb for “cut” (a tree, for example). Hence, in making the covenant there is a double cutting as it were, which is an emphatic separation, both naturally and spiritually (and signified by the physical circumcision). By the same token, transgression is also a “cutting (again, k.r.t, e.g. Lev. 7:20)… away” from the boundaries prescribed by the covenant.

This covenant, being two-sided, is therefore like a two-edged sword. Abba laid down the conditions, but knowing the infidelity characteristic of His children’s heart, He also built into the covenant the promise of grace. In other words, ultimately it will be Him only who will make possible its fulfillment, as is seen so vividly in 30:3-10. All the verbs that YHVH uses in relationship to Himself, in these eight verses, are in the ‘active causative form,’ denoting that He is both the initiator and the ‘enactor.’ Not only does He take it upon Himself to make it possible for the covenant to be fulfilled by carrying all of our afflictions and sufferings (through His Son), here it also says that "YHVH your Elohim [is He] who will cross (la'avor) ahead of you" (31:3). YHVH is truly the Elohim of the Hebrews! He goes ahead of them by "crossing over" Himself! And indeed, we see Yeshua crossing - “over” – ahead of us, entering within the veil giving us a hope which is sure and steadfast – “yatziv” (ref. Heb. 6:19, 20, Hebrew translation of the Greek, being also of the root, which lends the name to our Parasha). Thus, with a “yatziv” (sure) hope, we are enabled to be “y’tzivim” (steadfast, standing firmly).

In the meantime, this drama of the covenant nation, its unfaithfulness and the grace granted it, is to unfold in front of the entire universe and creation. The testimony – witness -“ed” – is being established by calling upon heaven and earth (ref. 30:19). The Song of Moses (referred to in Parashat Va’yelech 31:21 and presented in chapter 32, and a different version in Ex. 15) is the written record that serves as a witness, as does the Torah too, which is to be kept in the ark in the Holy of Holies (31:26).

The desolate land (29:23-28) also bears witness to the unfaithfulness of the people, both before their own sons' eyes, and in front of the foreigners, as does their banishment from it. All this is with view toward the end that the Hebrew people themselves will become a witness and a testimony nation. "You are my witness, declares YHVH" (Is. 43:10), to the fact that He is the Elohim of Yisrael, the Elohim of creation, and the Elohim of the universe.

The covenant here mentioned was made with us, of this generation (see 29: 14, 15), just as much as it was made with those who lived back then, and therefore we too are "standing in position" today to be a covenant people and a witness to the Elohim of the covenant, the Elohim of Yisrael, the Elohim of the Hebrews - the Elohim of grace.

While Parashat Nitzavim focuses on the “crossing over” of the Hebrew people, the next Parasha, “Va’yelech,” starts with… the “going” of Moshe: “va’yelech Moshe,” that is “and Moses went.” Although the Parasha commences with Moshe’s statement about his approaching death and with instating Yehoshua (Joshua) in his position, the rest of chapter 31 echoes some of what we just read in Parashat Nitzavim. And so “Moshe went and spoke these words to all Israel. And he said to them, I am a hundred twenty years old today. I can no more go out and come in. Also YHVH has said to me, ‘You shall not go over this Jordan’” (31:1, 2 italics added). Notice the elderly leader’s words, “I can no more go out and come in,” which in Hebrew is: “la’tzet ve-lavo” [literally “to go out” and “to come in”). The pervious Parashot, Ki Tetze, “when you go out,” and Ki Tavo,” - “when you come in,” seem to be related to these words of Moshe about “going out to war” (Deut. 21:10), and “coming into the land” (26:1). Thus, paraphrased, Moshe is implying the following: “I am not able to lead you in war, and neither am I able to enter the land with you.” But whereas Moshe will not be accompanying the people, he consoles them again, saying that “YHVH your Elohim will cross before you” – which is once more the familiar “over” (a.v.r – the root of “Hebrew”). “He will destroy these nations before you,” and in addition Yehoshua will also “go – pass, cross - “over” - before you” (v. 3). Verses 6 and 8 summarize all of the above: “YHVH your Elohim is He who goes with you. He will not fail you nor forsake you.” The latter expression is, “lo yar’pecha, ve-lo ya’az’vecha,” “Yar’peh” – translated “fail” - is of the root r. p/f. h (resh, pey/fey, hey), meaning to “become weak, let go, be negligent, or remove.” In Tehilim (Psalms) 46:10 it says, “Be still and know that I am YHVH.” However, in Hebrew it says, “be still and harpu,” which literally means, “let go,”or “become weak.” Because YHVH will not “let go” of His people, they are the ones who must do the “letting go” and become “weak” before Him, and in so doing they will know that He is the Elohim who alone can give them strength. Shaul (Paul) echoes this sentiment when he says: “And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weakness, that the power of Messiah may overshadow me” (2ndv Corinthians 12:9 italics added). The next verb (of the above-mentioned expression, “lo yar’pecha ve-lo ya’av’vecha”) is azav (ayin, zayin, bet/vet), and means “leave, abandon or forsake.” It is also used elsewhere in our Parasha, although in a different connotation, as we shall see at once.

And so we read in verses 16 and 17: “And YHVH said to Moses, ‘Behold, you shall sleep with your fathers. And this people shall rise up and go lusting after the gods of the strangers of the land into which they are going, into their midst. And they will forsake Me – ve’azavani - and break My covenant which I made with them. Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them - ve’azavtim…’” (Italics added). Verse 5 reveals to us that there is a condition for being preserved by YHVH: “…do to them [the nations in Cna’an - Canaan) according to all the commandments which I have commanded you,” and not “go lusting after [their] gods,” thereby forsaking the true One.

In the above (v. 16), we also read that in conjunction with following idols: “This people shall rise up…” which is “ve’kam.” In Parashat Nitzavim we read in 29:13: “…that He may establish you today for a people to Himself…” which is literally “that He may raise you up… - hakim.” Thus, it is the very people which YHVH was raising up, that “shall rise up and go lusting after the gods of the strangers…” (italics added). In both the above examples (and in many similar ones throughout the Tanach, some of which we examined very recently), we see the usage of the very same word, or a derivative of the same root, for the purpose of conveying contrasting messages. This method highlights or enhances an idea, and at times adds a touch of irony to the description at hand.

In verse 14, YHVH is commanding Moshe to call on Yehoshua and for both of them to “present” themselves in the Tabernacle; a command which is designated by the imperative
“(ve-hit)yatzvu”, of the root that we encountered in the previous Parashat “Nitzavim.” In presenting himself, therefore, Yehoshua is to make a “firm stand.” Further connection to Parashat Nitzavim is evident in the concept of “witness” – testimony “ – “ed,” masculine, and “eda,” feminine. In the previous Parasha heaven and earth and life and death were all mentioned as witnesses (30:19). Now the “Song” (which constitutes the next Parasha), the book of the Torah, and heaven and earth (again) are mentioned in the capacity of witnesses. The “Song,” in particular, is mentioned as “testifying as a witness” against the people “when many evils and troubles have found them” (v. 21). “Testifying” is “an’ta” (of the root a.n.h – ayin, noon, hey), meaning to “respond or answer,” as according to verse 19 the “Song” will be, “in the mouths of the Children of Israel.” Thus their own words, when they recite this Song, shall “respond” to their evil actions and become a testimony against them. This brings to mind Parashat Nitzavim’s: “the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, so that you may do it” (30:14 italics added), which is the other side of the same proverbial coin. Another usage of “ta’aneh,” “respond”, in relationship to “witness,” is found in Sh’mot (Exodus) 20:16 and Dvarim (Deuteronomy) 5:20: “You shall not bear – “ta’aneh”- respond” - a false witness against your neighbor.” In view of this, are the things that we say and do but responses, or answers, to a ‘Primary Cause’?

In verses 10 and 11 we read: “And Moses commanded them, saying, ‘at the end of seven years, at the set time of the year of release, in the Feast of Tabernacles, when all Israel has come to appear before YHVH your Elohim in the place which He shall choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing.’” The word for “read” is “kara” (k.r.a, kof, resh, alef), meaning to "read, recite, call.” At the end of the Parasha, in verse 29, it says: “For I know that after my death you will become utterly corrupt, and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you. And evil will happen to you in the latter end of the days…”. Moshe predicts that “evil” will “happen to you,” which is rendered here ve’karat, and shares the same root as the “kara” (“read”), that we have just looked at. However, as a rule the spelling for “happen,” albeit of the same sound as “read” or “recite,” is different and therefore has another root. Thus, the special rendering and spelling of “happen” in this particular case incorporates, as it were, the verb for “reading”, meaning that hearing the Torah read and turning away from it and from its Giver will result in evil befalling or happening to those who act in such manner.

[1] The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon, Francis Brown Hendrickson.
Publishers, Peabody, Mass. 1979.

[2] Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, Rabbi Matityahu Clark, Feldheim

Publishers, Jerusalem, New York.