Commentary on Parashat Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9 - 30:20
Commentary on Parshat Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20
Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.
At the beginning of Parshat Nitzavim, Moses gathers the entire Israelite people and gives them a stern warning to uphold God’s covenant. Terrible things await the person who does not observe the commandments, but God will take back in great mercy anyone who sincerely repents. The portion ends with words of encouragement: Moses tells the people that following the is not too difficult or too strange, but entirely within their capabilities.
Now you know that we dwelled in the land of Egypt and that we passed through other nations as we went on. You have seen detestable things and the idols of wood and stone, silver and gold that they had. Perhaps there is among you a man or a woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart is turning today away from our God, in order to serve the deities of those nations–maybe there is among you a poisonous root or wormwood. When such a one hears all these words, he may bless himself in his heart, saying: “I will have peace, and go after the direction of my heart”–thus sweeping away the moist with the dry. God will not come to pardon such a one. (Deuteronomy 29:15-19, translation mine, based on notes in the JPS commentary).
Even after the Israelites have seen all the different kinds of idolatry practiced by Egypt and all the other nations, and even after God has warned them time and time again not to worship other deities, it’s still possible that there might be someone who doesn’t take these warnings seriously. Moses thus warns the people yet again that they must be very careful not to allow in their midst any worship except that of the God of Israel.
Our passage this week contains some unusual and difficult language, giving our usual cast of commentators some work to do, especially in understanding the blessing that the disobedient one gives himself. I have translated this passage:
“I will have peace, and go after the direction of my heart”–thus sweeping away the moist with the dry.
But really, each clause is debatable. A few different translations show the possibilities:
When such a person hears the words of this oath, he invokes a blessing on himself and therefore thinks, “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way.” This will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry (New American Standard Bible).
It shall be when he hears the words of this curse that he will boast, saying, “I have peace though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart in order to destroy the watered land with the dry” (Revised Standard Version).
And it will be that when he hears the words of this imprecation, he will bless himself in his heart, saying: Peace will be with me, though I walk as my heart sees fit–thereby adding the watered upon the thirsty (Artscroll).
The biggest problem is the last clause of the verse: “thus sweeping away the moist with the dry.” The simplest explanation of this image is that it is “all-inclusive,” like saying “day and night,” or “soup to nuts.” The disobedient one will end up being “swept away” entirely; alternatively, he will bring disaster among the entire nation (Jewish Publication Society Commentary).
Rashi, on the other hand, sees the word sfot, which I am translating as “swept away,” as being related to the word for “added,” which has a similar root. Thus Rashi sees “adding the moist to the dry” as God adding punishments upon punishments for his sins.
Ramban has yet a third interpretation: this person is “giving himself a blessing” when all the other Israelites are hearing the curses related in chapter 28. He thinks that by exempting himself, the consequences won’t apply. Furthermore, according to Ramban, to “add moist to the dry” is a description of the psychological consequences of “following” one’s problematic desires: first somebody does something they ought not do, and then they keep on doing different forbidden things, looking for a greater thrill every time, constantly needing to “up the ante” in order to find temporary satisfaction of their desires.
All of these interpretations offer a more detailed explanation of the basic problem: this person (or group) that Moses warns about is in utter denial of the consequences of their actions. As Ramban points out, they are deluding themselves if they think that they can exempt themselves from the same conditions that apply to everybody around them. Whether they have mistaken ideas, or they are arrogant, or painfully naive, a person in denial can create big problems for themselves and those around them.
The specific issue that Moses addresses–worshipping the deities of the ancient nations–may not be much of a problem anymore, but the human capacity for self-deception remains with us always. People are often prone to think that “the rules” apply to everybody but themselves; whether in the realm of health, ethics, or simply the inevitable consequences of our actions, the refusal to confront reality is a pervasive and destructive force in human existence.
When you eat too much junk food, it’s not healthy for your body; when you tell little distortions of the truth, it’s not healthy for your relationships; when you consistently put off prayer and good deeds, it’s not good for your soul. These are teachings we all know, but all too often, try to forget.
Thus it’s especially appropriate to read these words the week before Rosh Hashanah. On the Days of Awe, we are challenged to fearlessly review our deeds: did we do what we ought? Did we do things we shouldn’t have? Are our relationships in order–with ourselves, with others, with God? Are we like the “self-blesser” that Ramban imagines, telling ourselves that it’s going to be all right, because the basic laws of nature and morality don’t really apply to me? (I, for one, am still firmly convinced that I can eat chocolate and cookies and not gain weight.)
The good news in all of this is that change is always possible. The following chapter is an extended meditation on the possibility of choice and change, along with the assurance that this is within the reach of every person:
For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off (Deuteronomy 30: 11).
Preparing ourselves for the Days of Awe can be daunting–sometimes it’s easier to look away than at parts of ourselves that need work. Yet Judaism insists that we have the capability to change, grow, and better ourselves–it’s hard work, but it’s that simple.
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