Renewing the Contract
This section of the Torah begins with the renewal of the covenant between G-d and the Jewish People which first took place at Mount Sinai 40 years earlier. Here Moshe emphasizes that the entire nation is gathered together for that renewal: “The heads of your tribes, your elders and your officers…all the men of Israel, your small children, your women and your proselytes…from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water.” By contrast, in the description of the first covenant, the Torah states that “the people” accepted the covenant, but individual groups are not specified.
The difference can be explained as follows: In Nitzavim, Moshe is reminding them that they have seen a wide variety of idolatries in Egypt, Midian, Moav and the kingdoms of Sichon and Og. They have encountered individuals of great wisdom and understanding. As a result, he cautions them, “There may be among you individuals who, deep inside, have been influenced by these experiences, contacts and ideas, and may have doubts about your commitment to the Torah.” Moshe did not want these issues to fester in private. Rather, he wanted them to be aired in public so that he could remove these doubts from their minds.
The first words of this parsha are, “You are standing today, all of you, before G-d”. The Hebrew for standing — nitzavim — connotes a gathering for debate, discussion and argument. The same word is used several other times in the Torah with the same connotation. Moshe’s intent was clear. Everyone, regardless of age, status or level of learning, was encouraged to voice his or her opinions and doubts publicly, before G-d and Moshe. Moshe was eager to listen, respond, and convince them of the truth. Moshe knew that there were doubts and issues. He did not want the people to feel that they were coerced into accepting the covenant. He wanted them to choose it freely after having had their doubts addressed properly.
If Moshe was concerned about the doubts of a nation that had just experienced 40 years of direct providential guidance, and encouraged debate and discussion, how much more relevant is his insight in today’s world where the truth and relevance of the Torah is under unremitting assault!
As the time of Moshe’s death approaches, G-d says to him, “The people will rise up and stray after the gods of the foreigners of the land… and they will forsake Me and annul My covenant… I will conceal my face from them… and many evils and distresses will encounter the nation.” Then G-d tells him that the people will repent and will say, “Is it not because my G-d is not in my midst that these evils have come upon me?” But, strangely enough, even after they have repented, G-d says that they will not be forgiven: “But I will surely conceal My face on that day because of all the evil that they did, for they turned to gods of others.”
All the commentators are puzzled by G-d’s refusal to accept the repentance of the nation. Abarbanel offers a unique insight into the behavior of the people, which is certainly relevant today as well. He says that the people were guilty of two transgressions: 1) The idolatrous practice of serving other gods. 2) Drifting away from the covenant and their essential connection to G-d. When the nation was punished as a result of these two transgressions, they repented by reaffirming their connection to G-d and the covenant, but did not give up their idolatrous practices. They felt that they could serve G-d as a “partnership” together with idolatrous practices. However, G-d makes it clear that this misconception is even more egregious than moving away from the covenant with G-d in the first place. Therefore, G-d says that he will surely conceal His face from them.
This misconception has been repeated throughout Jewish history. One cannot separate commitment, belief and attachment from specific behavior. One’s attachment to G-d and Torah cannot be in “partnership” with practices that are antithetical to the Torah.