Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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

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 these two Parashot is the definition of the nation as well as the ultimate promise of grace.

The familiar verb "avor" which means “to pass, go through, go over, enter,” and the noun and verb forms of "witness or testimony” ("ed"), show up more than once. The Hebrew people, YHVH’s witnesses, are characterized, as we know, by ‘crossing’ or ‘passing over,’ hence different aspects of this action are presented in the text.

But why are the “passers over” standing “in position” or “formation”? “That you may enter ("avor") the covenant with YHVH your Elohim, and enter [“avor”] into His oath [alah – an oath that if broken incurs a curse; in 30:7 is used as “curse”] 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). With all the crossing over of the Hebrews, the passing/crossing over into the covenant is of prime importance. Notice also the far reaching aspect of the covenant, to those “not with us today,” thus pointing to the continuity of the people of Yisrael and to generational unity within the boundaries of the covenant. Moreover, in 29:10-11 the text stresses 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). Consequently, in making the covenant there is a double cutting as it were, which points emphatically to separation, both naturally and spiritually (and is signified by the cutting entailed in the physical circumcision). By the same token, by transgression one may experience 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. In between this promise of grace and the warnings of transgressing His commandments (29:16-28), 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, italics added). Disobedience cannot be excused by claiming that the Torah is mystical and concealed, 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” here is different from the one employed in 29:29 for “hidden.” The present term (v. 14) is “niflet,” rooted in p.l.a (pey, lamed, alef. See Shoftim - Judges 13:18 and Tehilim - Psalm 139:6, both translated as “wonderful” in English). However, having said all of the above, in the next Parasha (chapter 31) there is warning that could result in situations where YHVH will hide His face from His people (v. 17).  

Repentance and turning to YHVH will bring a restoration which is expressed in the 30:3-10 passage where all the verbs in the ‘active causative form,’ denoting that He is both the initiator and the ‘enactor.’ Not only does He take it upon Himself to enable the fulfillment of the covenant, and at a latter date sends Yeshua to carry all of our afflictions and sufferings, in 31:13 it also says that, "YHVH your Elohim [is He] who will cross (“avor”) ahead of you" (italics added). YHVH is truly the Elohim of the Hebrews! He goes ahead of them by "crossing over" Himself! At the same time, together with the “crossing” or “passing over” we have here one of those Hebraic dichotomies indicated by “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 steadfast and stand 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) will also bear witness to the unfaithfulness of the people, both before their own sons' eyes, and in front of the foreigners (v. 22), as will their banishment from it (i.e. the land). 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 pertains to this preset day generation (see 29:14-15), just as much as it was to 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.

While Parashat Nitzavim focuses on the “crossing over” of the Hebrew people, Parashat “Va’yelech” starts with the “going” of Moshe: “va’yelech Moshe,” that is  “and Moses went, and continues with: “and spoke these words to all Israel” (31:1). This introduction, “Moses went,” to the statements that the elderly leader was about to make to his compatriots is quite curious. Was it a hint of his impending departure, and that he was ready to proclaim this fact to all Yisrael? Indeed Moshe continues: “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’” (v. 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 (respectively) 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 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, 7 and 8, spoken to Yisrael and to Yehoshua summarize all of the above:  "’Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them [the people of the land]; for YHVH your Elohim is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.’  Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, ‘Be strong and of good courage, for you will be the one to go with this people to the land which YHVH has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall cause them to inherit it.  And YHVH, is the One who goes before you. He will be with you, He will not leave you nor forsake you; do not fear nor be dismayed.’" Notice the repetition of “be strong and of good courage,” and of “YHVH is the One who goes with/before you.” YHVH is with His people, He is also with their leader, and at the same time is also going before/ahead of both.

The third expression which is repeated in the above passage: He will not fail you nor forsake you” is, “lo yar’pecha, ve-lo ya’azovcha.” “Yar’peh” – translated “fail” - is rooted in 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 is “harpu,” literally “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 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” (2nd Corinthians 12:9 italics added). The next verb (of the above-mentioned expression, “lo yar’pecha ve-lo ya’az’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.

Thus verses 16 and 17 of Dvarim 31 record: “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,” to not “go lusting after [their] gods,” thereby forsaking the true One. Nevertheless, in verse 16 we read that, “This people shall rise up…” which is “ve’kam.” In Parashat Nitzavim (Det. 29:13), above, it says: “…that He may establish you today for a people to Himself…” which is literally “that He may raise you up… - hakim.” Hence, it is the very people, whom YHVH was raising up – establishing - who “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 identical words, or derivatives 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 and a moral to the story or the description at hand.

YHVH is commanding Moshe to call on Yehoshua in order for both to “present” themselves in the Tent of Meeting (31:14); a command which is designated by the imperative “(ve-hit)yatzvu,” of the root that we just encountered above in Parashat “Nitzavim.”  In presenting himself, therefore, Yehoshua is to make a “firm stand” and a commitment. Further connection to Parashat Nitzavim is evident in the concept of “witness” – testimony “ – “ed,” masculine, and “eda,” feminine. In the above Parasha heaven and earth and life were mentioned as witnesses (30:19). Now the “Song” (which constitutes the following Parasha), the book of the Torah, and heaven and earth (again) are singled out as witnesses. The “Song,” in particular, is to “testify as a witness” against the people, “when many evils and troubles have found them” (31:21). “Testifying” in this particular case 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.” Therefore when they recite this Song, their own words 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, we may ask: are the things that we say and do but responses, or answers, to a ‘Primary Moving Cause’ (be it YHVH or the adversary)?

In 31:10-11 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 aforementioned “kara” (“read”). 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.” Hearing the Torah read, while turning away from it and from its Giver will result in evil befalling or happening to those who know better yet choose to rebel against its Giver (and against their own better judgment).

[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.

*  “Over” is pronounced like “overt,” minus the “t” sound.