Monday, September 10, 2012

Hebrew Insights into Parashot Nitzavim – D’varim (Deuteronomy) 29:10-Ch.30

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.

But why are the “passers over” 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). Hence 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. Moreover, in verses 10 and 11 the text continues to put stress on the all-inclusiveness of the covenant by addressing “all of you,” as well as by enumerating the entire social structure of the nation. “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 which is 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. As a divider between the warnings of transgressing His commandments, and His sovereign interventions, we read in 29:29:
“The things hidden are to YHVH our Elohim, and the things revealed are to us and to our sons -- that we may do all the words of this Torah” (literal translation). No excuse can explain away disobedience. There are no mystical and concealed meanings to hide behind, and as if this is not enough it says in 30:11-14: "For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off.  It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?'  "Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?'  But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.” The word for “mysterious” is a different than the one employed in 29:29 (for “hidden”). It is “niflet,” from the root p.l.a (pey, lamed, alef). (Compare Shoftim - Judges 13:18 and Tehilim - Psalm 139:6.)   

All the verbs that YHVH uses in the 30:3-10 passage, in relationship to Himself, 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! At the same time, along the “crossing” or “passing over” we have here one of those Hebraic dichotomies indicated by the “standing firmly.” The blend of both is the desired condition and status designated for the People of Yisrael. 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 Thus, with a “yatziv” (sure) hope, we are enabled to be “y’tzivim” (steadfast, standing firmly) in our crossing over journey.

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) 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.

As we have already seen, the covenant was made with us, in this generation (see 29: 14, 15), just as much as it was made with those who lived back then. Therefore we too are to "stand firm 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.

[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.