Parashat Nitzavim

Self Deception

Before the Children of Israel enter the land, Moses cautions them against self-deception, an appropriate warning for the high holidays as well.

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Provided by KOLEL--The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada's Reform movement.

Overview

At the beginning of parashat 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 parashah ends with words of encouragement: Moses tells the people that following the Torah is not too difficult or too strange, but entirely within their capabilities.

In Focus

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 Adonai 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).

Pshat

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.

Drash

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).

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.