Moses leads the refugees from Egypt for 40 years and brings them to the Jordan River. There, he knows, he will die and they will cross over into a new life. The book of Deuteronomy/Devarim is his farewell speech to the people, and in this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“taking a stand”) he launches into his conclusion.
Everyone standing there
First Moses lists everyone included in the renewed covenant with God that will take effect when the people cross into the “promised land” of Canaan.
You are the ones who are nitzavim today, all of you, before God, your God—your heads, your tribes(men), your elders, and your officials, every man of Israel; your young children, your women, and your stranger who is in the midst of your camps, from the gatherer of your wood to the drawer of your water—in order to cross into the covenant of God, your God, with its alah that God, your God, is cutting [signing] with you today. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 29:9-11)
nitzavim = taking a stand, stepping up, stationing yourselves, standing firm.
alah = an obligation which puts a curse on anyone who fails to meet it; a penalty clause in a contract.
Moses includes not only all the men of Israel, regardless of rank, but also all the women and all the children. Moreover, he includes the strangers in their midst: those who are not of the same blood, but who voluntarily chose to join the Israelites when they left Egypt—in other words, the converts. Moses even includes low-status converts, those who gather wood and draw water for the Israelites.
This is not the same group of Israelites and converts who followed Moses out of Egypt. Most of the adults in the original group have died during the 40 years in the wilderness. Some died when God punished various revolts with plague, fire, earthquake, or snakebite. Others died of old age during the 38 years that passed between the group’s arrival at the southern border of Canaan in the desert, and their arrival at the more northern border of Canaan at the Jordan River.1
Now the survivors are standing on the river bank, ready to cross. Most of them were children, or not born yet, when the original group embraced the original covenant with God at Mount Sinai. So Moses says God is cutting a covenant with this new group.
It is a covenant with a penalty clause, an alah. If they do not live up to their side of the covenant, following God’s laws and refraining from worshiping any other god, then the long list of curses in last week’s Torah portion would come to pass. (For example, parents would eat their own children as they are starved by crop failure and besieging enemies.)
When God gave a covenant to the earlier generation at Mount Sinai, they replied, “We will do and we will hear!” But in this week’s Torah portion, when Moses announces the covenant to the later generation, they say nothing. No response is recorded in the Torah.
So why does Moses describe this passive group as nitzavim? Are they really taking a stand in favor of God? Are they standing firm, as the word nitzavim implies? Or are they merely standing there waiting for Moses to finish his speech so that they can do the next thing they are required to do? Are they following orders because they want to serve God, or because they have grown up knowing that serving the God of Israel is better than the alternative?
Are they standing firm, or are they merely still standing?
Then Moses expands the group included in the covenant, quoting God:
And I, Myself, am cutting this covenant and this alah not with you alone, but with whoever is here standing with us today before God, our God, and whoever is not here with us today. (Deuteronomy 29:14)
Who are these additional people who are not standing in front of God that day?
According to Rashi2 they are the souls of all future Jews, yet to be born. Traditional commentary agrees and includes both everyone who ever had or will convert to Judiasm, along with everyone who was or will be born to a Jewish mother.
(Converts enter the covenant with God at the time of their conversion, but people who are born Jewish have no choice; they are simply included. Different commentators have held different opinions about whether individuals who were born Jewish can opt out of the covenant or not.)
What I wonder is whether traditional Jewish commentary is too narrow in its definition of who is included in “whoever is not here with us today”. What if the covenant applies to every human being on earth, forever? That would fit the plain sense of the words.
Is Moses saying that all human beings will become Torah-observant Jews?
No. I think “whoever is not here with us today” means that all human beings ought to be standing before God. And that means we should avoid acting as if we were gods. Only through humility and responsibility can we avoid the curse of (psychologically) devouring our children, the curse of (metaphorically) devouring any other human being, the curse of devouring our own planet.
We should remember that we are small parts of the whole creation. And we should remember that all human beings are in a covenant together, living on the earth.
- At the southern border, most of the people were afraid and refused to cross into Canaan. (See my post Shelach Lekha: Sticking Point.) God’s punishment was to make them wait until all but two men from that generation had died before they could attempt a second crossing into Canaan—hence the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.
- 11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki.
2 thoughts on “Nitzavim: Still Standing”