Haftarat Nitzavim—Isaiah: Doing the Right Thing

Model of Herod’s Jerusalem with temple, Israel Museum, Jerusalem (photo by M.C.)

The seventh and last “haftarah of consolation” is read the week before Rosh Hashanah. Like last week’s haftarah, this week’s passage from second Isaiah celebrates a glorious future when the world will revolve around the Israelites and their God in Jerusalem.1

No doubt many Israelites were consoled by the belief that God, who had previously arranged for the Babylonians to conquer and exile them, would soon bless them again. Even today, many individuals who have suffered irreversible losses are consoled by the belief that God works in mysterious ways2 and will be good to them from now on.

I am not one of those people. But this year I found a different consolation in the seventh haftarah of consolation: the word tzedakah.

High priest, detail from bible card by Providence Lithograph Co., 1907

This week’s reading uses the word tzedakah five times, starting with:

I certainly rejoice in God!

            My soul exults in my God.

For [God] has clothed me in garments of liberation,

            Has wrapped me in a royal robe of tzedakah,

As a bridegroom puts on a turban like a priest’s

            And as a bride adorns herself with ornaments. (Isaiah 61:10)

tzedakah (צְדָקָה) = right behavior, righteousness. (The root verb, tzadak (צָדַק) = was justified, judged rightly, was not guilty, was righteous, was ethical.)3

Tzedakah can mean ethical behavior in general, or it can refer to a particular arena of right behavior. In the Hebrew bible, it most often means justice. In Psalm 112 and modern Hebrew, it means helping the disadvantaged.

In verse 61:10 above, tzedakah is pictured as splendid outer garment provided by God. Perhaps the Israelites who hear that God will rescue them from Babylon find the prophesy as majestic as the robe of a priest or princess, and beautiful as a bride’s adornments.

The next verse elaborates:

For as the earth brings forth her sprouts

            And as a garden sprouts growing plants,

Thus will my lord God sow tzedakah

            And praise, in front of all the nations. (Isaiah 61:11)

All the nations on earth will witness the transformation of the exiled Israelites. Both tzedakah and praise from other nations will flourish.

What does tzedakah mean in this context? The Jewish Publication Society and some other respected translations use the English word “victory” for all five occurrences of the word tzedakah in this week’s haftarah. Translator Robert Alter explained that the primary meanings of words derived from the root verb tzadak have to do with winning a just case in court. The idea of winning came to include winning in battle4 (as long as the winning side is the right side).

The metaphor in Isaiah 60:10 is vague enough so tzedakah can be translated equally well as “victory” or “justice” or even “righteousness”. But in Isaiah 60:11, “victory” does not make sense to me. Why is tzedakah paired with praise? People may praise their own kings or gods for being victorious, but outsiders praise victors only when they need to appease them. Nowhere does the Hebrew Bible praise the Babylonians for being victorious!

Furthermore, the metaphor of sprouting plants is a better fit for the growth of good deeds and justice in Jerusalem. People in other nations might well praise the people of Jerusalem for their kindness and justice. After all, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah praise the Persian emperors who replaced the Babylonians because the Persian policies are more ethical and fair to downtrodden populations like the Israelites.

Does God deserve credit for making righteousness sprout in the Israelites? Yes, according to the bible. Second Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel agree that God let the Babylonians conquer Jerusalem for two reasons: its citizens were unethical in their dealings with other humans, and they worshiped idols. When second Isaiah and Ezekiel prophesy the return of the exiled Israelites to Jerusalem, they say that the people will improve and God will forgive them.

Ezekiel even quotes God as saying:

I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put into you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your body, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit into you. And I will act [so that] you follow my decrees and my laws; you will observe and do them. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

In short, God will make the Israelites want to be ethical and follow God’s rules. This is how God  sows tzedakah in the Israelites.

The next verse of this week’s haftarah also refers to tzedakah:

For the sake of Zion I will not be silent,

            And for the sake of Jerusalem I will not be quiet,

Until her tzedakah emerges like radiance

            And her rescue burns like a torch. (Isaiah 62:1)

The “her” in “Until her tzedakah emerges like radiance” refers to Jerusalem and its natives. These Israelites will not be responsible for any victory over the Babylonians; that is up to God (who fulfills the prophecy by arranging for the Persians to take over the Babylonian Empire). Therefore “righteousness” or “justice” is a more reasonable translation than “victory” in verse 62:1.

The focus then shifts to God, Jerusalem’s rescuer, addressed as “you”.

And nations will see your tzedakah

            And all kings, your magnificence … (Isaiah 62:2)

What, exactly, will the nations and their kings observe? The Israelites might think of God’s tzedakah as “victory”, since the bible gives God credit for the Persian victory over the Babylonian Empire. But the people and kings of other nations could not be expected to give the God of Israel credit for this victory. If anything, they would attribute it to a/ Persian god; in the Ancient Near East, each god was considered responsible for the fate of its own people.

The most that kings of other nations might notice is that the change of empires allowed the homecoming of the Israelites, who (according to the previous verse) are a manifestly just and righteous people. This much could count as a good deed on the part of the God of Israel.

The fifth time this week’s haftarah uses the word tzedakah is more ambiguous. God is imagined as wearing clothes covered with blood, like a victor in battle:

Gideon and His 300, detail from bible card by Providence Lithograph Co., 1907

Who is this coming from Edom,

            In bloody clothes from Bozra?

[Who] is this, splendid in his attire,

            Striding in his abundant power?

“I am one who speaks with tzedakah,

            Abundant for rescuing.” (Isaiah 63:1)

The blood in this image does identify God as a victor in war. Nevertheless, given all the occurrences throughout the bible of tzedakah as justice or right behavior, God could be “one who speaks with justice” or “one who speaks about ethics”, and provides many rescues to carry out justice—even if some of the rescues are bloody.

The final “haftarah of consolation” is read on the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, which begins on Sunday evening this year. During Rosh Hashanah services, Jews pray to be “inscribed in the Book of Life” for the next year, a theme that continues ten days later on Yom Kippur, when we beg God to forgive is for all our ethical shortcomings.

For me, this is another reason to read this week’s haftarah in terms of tzedakah as right behavior, rather than in terms of victory in war.

The idea of tzedakah also comforts and consoles me for my mother’s death. I went out of my way to do everything I could to lovingly help her this past year, despite various difficulties. Whatever other ethical shortcomings I have, I know I am not guilty in that area of life. And I thank God for the strength to do the right thing. 

I wish all of my readers a good new year, a shanah tovah of life and tzedakah—whenever the year begins for you!

  1. For more on this haftarah reading, see my post Haftarat Nitzavim—Isaiah: Power of Names.
  2. See my post Psalm 73: When Good Things Happen.
  3. In the bible, a tzadik (צַדִּיק, also from the root tzadak) is a just or ethical person. In Chassidic writings, a tzadik is a spiritual master, a man who devotes himself to Torah study in order to come close to God. The Chassidic movement within Judaism began in the 17th century, and emphasizes passionate attachment to the divine.
  4. Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: Volume 2, Prophets, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2019, p. 776, footnote on 45:25.
  5. The founder of the Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great, established policies allowing former exiles to return to their homes, allowing the people in each province to rebuild the shrines and temples of their own religions, and instituting limited self-government in provinces—including the province of Judea.

Haftarat Nitzavim—Isaiah: Power of Names

Prophet Isaiah by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

Hey!  God has announced

            To the ends of the earth:

“Say to the daughter of Zion

            Hey!  Your rescue is coming!”  (Isaiah 62:11)           

The second prophet Isaiah is speaking to the people of Judah who were deported to Babylon when the Babylonian army razed Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E.  The verse appears in the haftarah reading which accompanies this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim.  It is is the seventh and final “haftarah of consolation” after the annual fast of Tisha B’Av, when Jews mourn the destruction of the temple.1  This week’s haftarah offers more than consolation; Isaiah predicts that God will return the exiles to Jerusalem in triumph.

Then, Isaiah says, instead of denigrating the deportees and their ruined city, everyone in the world will admire the Jews and Jerusalem.

And so my lord, God,

          Will make virtue and praise sprout up

          In front of all the nations.  (Isaiah 61:11)

Then nations will see your virtue,

            And every king your glory.

And you will be called by a new sheim

            That the mouth of God will pronounce.  (Isaiah 62:2)

sheim (שֵׁם) = name, reputation, fame.

In fact, after about 45 years in exile, a group of deportees and their families did return to Jerusalem.  The book of Ezra credits God with using Cyrus, the first king of the Persian Empire, as a tool for achieving the liberation of these Jews.2

Cyrus Cylinder, photo by Ferrell Jenkins

King Cyrus of Persia recorded his conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C.E. in a cuneiform record called the Cyrus Cylinder.  One ambiguous sentence on the cylinder could be interpreted as a decree that all peoples deported by the Babylonians, including the Jews from Judah, were now free to return to their homes and rebuild their temples.3

Cyrus could be called virtuous and praiseworthy for establishing freedom of movement and religious freedom for the subjects in his empire.  But how will God make the Jews who return to Jerusalem virtuous and praiseworthy?  How will God give them a new sheim?

The country the Israelites return to is no longer the independent kingdom of Judah (Yehudah, יְהוּדָה), but a Persian province called Judea (Yehud).  But this is not the kind of name change second Isaiah means.  Instead, the prophet says God will change the way other people describe the Jews and Jerusalem.

Never again will it be said of you: “Forsaken”

            And never again will it be said of your land: “Desolation”.

For you will be called: “I Delight in Her”

            And your land: “Betrothed”.

Because God delights in you,

            And your land is embraced.  (Isaiah 62:4)

Once the returning exiles rebuild Jerusalem and its temple, it makes sense that nobody would call the people “forsaken” or the city-state “desolation” any more.  Judea would become one thriving province among many.

But the governors of other provinces in the Persian Empire would not describe the people Israel as “I Delight in Her”, since the first person would only apply to God.   And the land is “betrothed” to God, not to Cyrus or the provincial governor.  “I Delight in Her” and “Betrothed” are the new names that “the mouth of God will pronounce”.

Later in the poem the Israelites and Jerusalem are assigned other positive descriptors.

And they will be called: “The Holy People”,

            “Redeemed by God”.

And you [Zion] will be called: “Sought Out”,

            “City Not Forsaken”.  (Isaiah 62:12)

Who will use those names to refer to the people and the land?  The phrase “Redeemed by God” could only be used by the redeemed exiles themselves.  They are also the most likely to use the other three names.  We learn in the book of Ezra that the Jews who returned from Babylon sought out Jerusalem/Zion instead of leaving the city forsaken because they believed it was their holy mission to rebuild the temple and reestablish their religion there.

In other words, first Isaiah announces the new names of praise that God will speak.  Then the people act, living up to those names by returning to their parents’ homeland and rebuilding Jerusalem and its temple.  Once they have succeeded, they deserve the names.


Can we use the same technique?  For example, what if Americans started referring to the United States with the name “Mother of Exiles” from the 1893 Emma Lazarus poem for the Statue of Liberty?  Would we be more inclined to welcome the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” who seek asylum in the United States?

What if we took seriously the final phrase from the American pledge of allegiance (1942), “with liberty and justice for all”?  If millions of yard signs said: “America: Liberty and Justice for All”, would more people work to make it true?

And on a personal level, what if we named ourselves according to our good qualities, however nascent?  For example, I realized I have been getting through a hard year with fortitude.  Calling myself “Fortitude” might help me to stay strong and calm until various health issues are resolved.

I can also call myself “Blessed”, because after all, I have good food to eat, I live in a good apartment with my beloved husband, I have good long-distance conversations with my friends and with my son and daughter-in-law, and I can still write.  I say “I am blessed” and I appreciate what I have.

  1. Traditionally, Tisha B’Av (the ninth of the summer month of Av) is a day for mourning the fall of both temples in Jerusalem—the first by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and the second by the Romans in 70 C.E. Today most Jews who observe Tish B’Av mourn the destruction and suffering without any desire to return to the temple method of worship.
  2. Ezra 1:1-4, 3:7, 4:3-5, and 5:13-6:12.
  3. “[32]I returned the images of the gods, who had resided there [i.e. in Babylon] to their places and I let them dwell in eternal abodes. I gathered all their inhabitants and returned to them their dwellings.” (translation of the Cyrus Cylinder in https://www.livius.org/sources/content/cyrus-cylinder/cyrus-cylinder-translation/).  The cylinder specifically mentions the return of the images of two Akkadian gods. The Israelites would have no “images” of their God, and the ark of the covenant is missing from the biblical and historical record after the fall of the first temple in 587 B.C.E.

Nitzavim: From Mouth to Heart

For you must listen to the voice of God, your God, to keep [God’s] commands and decrees, those written in the book of this Torah; because you must return to God, your God, with all levavekha and with all nafshekha.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:10)

levavekha (לְבָבְךָ) = your heart; your mind, your consciousness.

nafshekha (נַפְשֶׁךָ) = your throat; your appetite, your desire; your animating soul.

What command is Moses talking about here in this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“Taking a stand”)?  One possible command is “to keep [God’s] commands and decrees, those written in the book of this Torah”.  But the reason for observing all these rules is “because you must return to God, your God, with all levavekha and with all nafshekha.

So some classic commentators, including Ramban, Albo, and Sforno,1 wrote that the underlying command is to do teshuvah, i.e. repentance and turning back to God.

Moses continues:

For this command that I command you today is not too difficult for you, and it is not too far away.  It is not in the heavens, to say: “Who can go up for us to the heavens and take it for us and announce it to us, so we can do it?”  And it is not from across the sea, to say:  “Who can cross over for us to the other side of the sea today and take it for us and announce it, so we can do it?”  Rather, the thing is very close to you, in pikha and in levavekha, to do it.”  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:11-14)

pikha (פִּיךָ) = your mouth; your statement.

Sforno explained: “You also have no need for the wise men of the generation, who are far away, to expound it for you in such a manner that it will be possible for you (to do it) in exile.”2

The command to turn back to God is always possible to obey, even for those who are not “wise men”, because God helps us do it.  Earlier in the Torah portion Nitzavim, Moses says:

—if: “you return to God, your God, and you listen for [God’s] voice…  you and your children, with all levavekha and with all nafshekha (Deuteronomy 30:2)

—then: “God, your God, will return to restore you and have compassion on you… (Deuteronomy 30:3)

—and furthermore: “Then God, your God, will circumcise levavekha and the levav of your descendants to love God, your God, with all levavekha and with all nafshekha, in order that you will live.  (Deuteronomy 30:6)

levav (לְבַב) = heart, mind, consciousness.

In other words, if you want to return to God with all your mind and all your desire, and you listen for God, then God will meet you halfway and open your heart so that you love God.  Loving God makes completing teshuvah a lot easier.  (See my blog post Nitzavim & Yom Kippur: Centripetal Force.)

What does the Torah portion mean by: “Rather, the thing is very close to you, in pikha and in levavekha, to do it”?

According to Albo, “The text is certainly alluding to teshuvah.  A pointer to this are the words: ‘in thy mouth and in thy heart to do it’.  Teshuvah involves confession of the lips and remorse of the heart.”3

Then why does pikha, your mouth (or the statement that issues from it) come before levavekha?  Don’t you have to feel remorse in your heart before you can confess wrongdoing?  Don’t you have to feel like turning back to God before you can do it?

No, at least not in my own experience.  In a way, making teshuvah with God is like doing the right thing with people I don’t really like.  I know I should be compassionate and fair with them, so I make an effort to acknowledge them, say something friendly, listen to them, treat them with respect.  After I have done this for a while, I usually find myself caring about them.  Good speech leads to good feelings.

On the Eve of Yom Kippur, by Jakub Weinles

Similarly, I often feel distant from God.  It is harder for me to relate to God than to human beings, especially since I only have a vague concept of what the word “God” might legitimately mean.  I used to take the easy path of atheism, ignoring my undefinable feelings of transcendence so I could deny God.

But now I take the first step of teshuvah by turning toward God and listening for God’s voice.  When I pray or ponder a piece of Torah, the words are in my mouth first.  They echo in my consciousness, and sometimes an insight arises, as if from nowhere, as if from God.  And I feel moved, as if my heart is opening.  The thing that was in my mouth enters my heart.

Teshuvah is on the minds of many Jews at this time of year, as we approach Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”).  May each of us find a way to let the spoken liturgy enter our hearts, so that as we turn toward God, God returns to us.

  1. Rashi is the acronym for the 11th-century French rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki. Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra was a 12th-century Spanish rabbi. Ramban is the acronym for the 13th-century Spanish rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, also known as Nachmnaides.  Yosef Albo was the 15th-century Spanish rabbi who wrote Sefer Ha-IkkurimOvadiah ben Yaakov Sforno was a 16th-century Italian rabbi.
  2. Ovdiah Sforno, Commentary on the Torah, translated by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz, Artscroll, 1997, p. 981.
  3. From Yosef Albo, Sefer Ha-Ikkurim, translated by Aryeh Newman in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1980, p. 323.

Repost: Nitzavim

Glimpsing how people in other cultures live is one benefit of travel.  Before we left New York, Will and I took a tour of Hasidic Brooklyn—actually of the Lubavitcher enclave in Crown Heights.

Rav Yoni Katz, tour guide

Our guide, Rabbi Yoni Katz, is an American Jew, like us.  But we wore casual clothes that would blend in anywhere in the country, while he wore a 1940-style black hat, an untrimmed beard, and a black suit with white fringes (tzitzit) hanging out from under the bottom of his jacket.  We have only one child; he has seven children so far.  We enjoy the gender equality of our era; he is comfortable in a community that believes women have different natures, a community where most (though not all) women stay home to raise their many children.  We grope to define the mystery called “God”; he speaks as if God were his beloved grandfather, still living in the neighborhood.

It seems natural for him and some other Lubavitcher Hasids we met to take injunctions in the Torah as literal expressions of what God needs from the humans “He” created.  For example, the book of Numbers/Bemidbar tells us to wear tzitzit (knotted fringes) on four corners of a garment to remind us of the rules, so Hasidic men wear tzitzit every day for God’s sake.  The Torah lists rules for kosher eating and the Talmud expands on them, so the men and women carefully keep kosher for God’s sake.

As for myself, I never accept a religious rule because a human being with authority wrote it down and claimed it came from God.  Humans may be inspired by God, but our own brains translate inspiration into words, and a lot can get lost or altered in translation.  Therefore if I cannot think of a good reason for a Jewish rule, I ignore it.  I do not obey chukim (directives with no rationale).

Nevertheless, Yoni’s introduction to the Lubavitcher philosophy of life spoke to my heart.  In short, he said that acting out of egotism will never make life meaningful.  What matters is meeting the needs of others—both other humans who need us and God, who created us because “He” needs us.

Every week during our journey toward Jerusalem, I am sending a link to one of the posts on the weekly Torah portion that I have written during the last nine years.  This week, after listening to Yoni, I chose Nitzavim: Still Standing

What does it mean to be standing before God?  Can anyone do it?  What does it mean to stop acting just for your own benefit, as if you were a god?  Click on the link above and see what I wrote in 2012.

Today, as I post this, we are sitting in the airport in Rome.  Next week I will be posting from Prague.  Our journey continues.

(Note: If any of my comments about Lubavitchers is wrong, please let me know.)

Nitzavim: Secret Idolatry

What happens when you make a solemn promise while secretly planning to betray it?

Moses announces in last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, that as soon as the Israelites cross the Jordan they must enact a ritual in which they all say “amen” to twelve declarations. Each declaration begins “Cursed be the one who—”, but since the people say “amen” at the end of each one, they are actually making covenantal vows. (See my post Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.) Thus the whole community must vow to refrain from secretly worshiping idols, to follow six rules about treating other people ethically, to refrain from sex with beasts, to avoid three kinds of incest, and to uphold the teaching (torah) of God.1

Moses says in this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“taking a stand”) that the vows cover everyone: men, women, children, strangers who joined the Israelites leaving Egypt, and everyone’s future descendants. Then he reminds the people that they vowed to give up all gods except the one God of Israel.

Poison hemlock

What if there is among you a man or a woman or a clan or a tribe whose mind is turning this day away from God, our God, to go serve the gods of those nations?  What if there is a root bearing the fruit of rosh and la-anah? (Deuteronomy/Devarim 29:17)

rosh (רֺאשׁ) = poison—sometimes from a plant (perhaps poison hemlock, a highly toxic plant different from a hemlock tree), sometimes from snake venom.2

Wormwood in bloom

la-anah (לַעֲנָה) = wormwood (Artemisia absinthium): a plant used to add a bitter flavor to drinks. (Excess doses of wormwood cause convulsions.)

People who swear fealty to one God while secretly resolving to serve other gods are compared to roots hidden in the ground that inevitably grow into like rosh and la-anah.3 People living a lie may believe they are safe, but their deeds will result in bitterness and poison, for them and the people around them.

And it might be, when one hears the words of this curse, then one will call oneself blessed in one’s mind, saying: “All will be well with me, even though I go with the stubbornness of my mind”—with regard to sefot the drenched with the dry.  (Deuteronomy 29:18)

sefot (סְפוֹת) = sweeping away, destroying; or sweeping together, heaping up. (Either kind of sweeping is a prelude to doom in at least 17 of the 20 times a form of this verb appears in the Hebrew Bible.)


Again the Torah uses vivid language to bring the warning to life, though the phrase “with regard to sefot the drenched with the dry” is more ambiguous. One interpretation is that God punishes all the misdeeds of secret idolaters harshly: the inadvertent misdeeds they do out of carelessness, as if they were drunk (drenched) swept together with the deliberate misdeeds they commit because they are thirsty (dry), i.e. craving the forbidden thing.4

Another is that the clandestine idolaters (the dry) expect to live well by freeloading on the virtues of others (the drenched); they assume that if the community in general is honest and good, God will not single them out for punishment.5

One can also read the verse as a warning that when secret idolaters anger God, God is likely to sweep away everyone, the drenched along with the dry. By any interpretation, all will not be well with the idolater.

God will not be willing to forgive him. For that is when God’s nose will smoke, and [God] will be zealous against that man, and these bad results written in this book will crouch down over him, and [God] will wipe out his name from under the heavens. And [God] will separate him out from all the tribes of Israel for misfortune, according to all the oaths of the covenant in the book of this Torah. (Deuteronomy 29:19-20)

Moses then predicts two misfortunes: an increase in diseases, and devastation of the land belonging to the individual, clan, or tribe that continues worshiping idols despite the covenant with God.

Today we see an increase in devastation of land all over the world, since our air pollution is changing climates and causing bigger storms and floods and forest fires (and this is just the tip of the melting iceberg). But although many countries have laws limiting pollution somewhat, humans are barely beginning to consider a covenant requiring everyone to serve the health of our God-given planet. And there is nothing secret about the thirst for more money and power that leads people with authority to ignore pollution.

But the warning in the portion Nitzavim also applies to millions of individual vows: oaths of office, business contracts, marriage vows and promises to partners, public moral standards for authorities. All too often people deliberately violate these vows, reassuring themselves that no one will find out.

Do these secret sins lead to rosh and la-anah, poison and bitterness?

I believe the answer is yes. Human beings (apart from the rare amoral sociopath) have a built-in desire for integrity. We want family, friends, and leaders we can trust to be honest, trust to be who they appear to be. We want to be trustworthy ourselves.

And we are also thirsty for sensual delights, addictions, luxuries, power, fame, even the thrill of getting away with something.

When we discover someone has fooled us with a false front we feel outraged, then bitter. We can go into denial, but consciously or unconsciously we will abandon or otherwise punish the one who betrayed us.

The secret sinner can also go into denial, saying “All will be well with meor “It’s not really my fault” or “Just one more time”. But even before anyone uncovers the lie, the liar lives with a nagging guilt, a betrayal of the divine will within, a poison that seeps through the wall of denial.

This week’s Torah portion gives hope to all of us who pretend to be saintly, but secretly serve the “gods” we promised to avoid.  Moses says:

And you will turn back to God, your god, and you will listen to [God’s] voice as everything that I commanded you this day, you and your children, with all your mind and with all your soul. Then God, your god, will turn around your condition and have compassion on you… (Deuteronomy 30:2-3)

We can stop and do teshuvah, returning to God, turning back to the right path. One can do teshuvah at any time, but we Jews also dedicate the month before Rosh Hashanah (Elul) and the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to examining our behavior during the past year, apologizing to people we have harmed, correcting what we can, and turning back to God. This is a time to recognize and atone for the vows you have secretly broken. This is a time to repent and make honest vows to the divine within.

May we all face ourselves and the divine voice within. May we all turn around and become whole.

  1. Deuteronomy 27:11-26. Joshua 24:1-28 reports that a version of this ceremony was carried out at Shechem, the location of the two hills (Mount Gerezim and Mount Ebal) that Moses specified in Deuteronomy.
  2. Rosh (רֺאשׁ) = poison and rosh (רֺאשׁ) = head are spelled the same way, but the two words are merely homonyms.
  3. The pairing of rosh and la-anah is a Biblical idiom also used in Amos 6:11-12, Jeremiah 9:13-14 and 23:15, and Lamentations 3:19-20. In these instances, God punishes the two Israelite kingdoms for worshiping other gods by letting invading armies conquer them; metaphorically, God is feeding them la-anah and making them drink water of rosh.
  4. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yistchaki) cites Onkelos in this interpretation.
  5. “Though God may have no intention of watering him with the bounty of His blessings, he must willy-nilly enjoy them as part of the community which receives them. The phrase ‘I shall have peace’ implies therefore two things: (1) the excluding himself from the community in respect of entering into the covenant and the curses; (2) saving himself from retribution because he is part of the community. (Akedat Yizhak)” (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim, translated by Aryeh Newman, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1980, p. 306)

Haftarat Nitzavim—Isaiah: Dressed Up

Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20) and the haftarah is Isaiah 61:10-63:9).

The final haftarah before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) is the last of the seven weeks of consolation.  The reading from second Isaiah begins:

            I truly rejoice in God;

            The soul of my body shouts with joy for my God!

            For [God] has dressed me in garments of liberation:

            [God] wrapped me in a meiyl of tzedakah

            Like a bridegroom, priest-like in a glorious turban,

            And like a bride adorned with her jewelry. (Isaiah 61:10)

meiyl (מְעִיל) = formal robe worn over other garments, wrapped and tied with a sash.  (Plural:  meiylim.)

tzedakah (צְדָקָה) = righteousness, right behavior, justice.

This poetic passage is narrated by the prophet, but it implies that God is dressing every Israelite living in exile in Babylon with the same amazing garments.

Second Isaiah rejoiced because after more than 50 years of exile, the Israelites in Babylon were free.  The Persian king Cyrus finished conquering the Babylonian Empire and decreed in 535 B.C.E. that all foreign populations were now free to return to their old homelands and rebuild their own temples. According to second Isaiah (45:1), God anointed King Cyrus as God’s agent in order to liberate the Israelites.

The poet expresses this liberation in terms of clothing.  God dresses the Israelites in new garments, garments associated with priesthood and weddings.

Garments of the high priest
Garments of
the high priest

High Priest

The word meiyl appears 28 times in the Hebrew Bible.  The first ten times it refers to a robe worn exclusively by the high priest.

They shall make the garments of Aaron to sanctify him to serve as a priest to Me. And these are the garments they shall make: a breast-piece and an oracular-apron and a meiyl and a checkered tunic and a turban and a sash… (Exodus/Shemot 28:3-4)

The purpose of the unique costumes worn by the priests is to make the men holy so they can serve in the sanctuary.  In this case, the clothes do make the man.  The high priest, beginning with Aaron, wears additional garments, including a meiyl over his tunic. The high priest’s meiyl is a long rectangle of woven fabric with a nicely finished neck-hole in the middle.  It is dyed completely blue, and it has alternating gold bells and embroidered pomegranates around the bottom hem. (For more details, see my posts Tetzavveh: The Sound of Ringing, and Tetzavveh: The Clothes Make the Man.)


In the first five books of the Bible, only the high priest wears a meiylAfter that, a meiyl is the prophet Samuel’s signature garment from childhood to death and beyond.  When he is a boy serving as an attendant at the temple in Shiloh,

…his mother made for him a little meiyl, and she brought it up for him every year when she went up with her husband to slaughter the animal sacrifice. (1 Samuel 2:19)

Samuel continues to wear a meiyl as Israel’s chief prophet and judge.  After Samuel has died, King Saul asks the witch of En-Dor to summon his ghost.

And he said to her: What do you see?  And she said: An old man rising up, and he, he is wrapped in a meiylThen Saul knew that he was Samuel… (1 Samuel 28:14)

Rulers and royalty

Although the highest service is to God, the Bible also shows rulers dedicated to serving their nations wearing meiylimKing Saul, King David, the princes of the Phoenician city-states in the book of Ezekiel, and Ezra the Scribe—who was the informal ruler of Jerusalem when the exiles began to rebuild.

The children of rulers might also wear meiylimKing Saul’s son Jonathan removes his meiyl and gives it to David as a pledge of love.  Once David is the king, he dresses his daughters in meiylim.

The only people in the Bible who wear meiylim even though they are neither rulers nor prophets nor priests appear in the book of Job.  Job tears his meiyl in grief when he hears that all his children are dead, and Job’s three friends tear their meiylim when they first see him sitting in the garbage dump, covered with boils.  Here the meiyl seems to be merely a garment indicating the status of prominent citizens.


Four of the meiylim in the Bible are imaginary; the image of a robe reinforces the idea of being wrapped in something.  A meiyl is used in a metaphor for being wrapped in tzedakah in Job 29:14, and for being wrapped in shame in Psalm 109:29.  God wraps Itself in a meiyl of zeal in Isaiah 59:17.  And in this week’s haftarah, God wraps the prophet and every exiled Israelite ina meiyl of tzedakah”.

Perhaps men wore meiylim to their weddings in Biblical times, but the Bible does not say.  Brides and bridegrooms did wear their most beautiful clothes and jewelry, and the haftarah compares the bridegroom’s turban to the turban of a priest. The haftarah goes on to say that the rebuilt Jerusalem will  “marry” God, and the returning Israelites will “marry” Jerusalem.  It is appropriate, then, for God to dress the new Jerusalemites as if they were priests serving God.

The divine act of wrapping the Israelites in meiylim of tzedakah also explains a statement at the end of last week’s haftarah, in which God tells Jerusalem:

            And your people, all of them tzaddikim,

            Forever they will possess the land…(Isaiah 60:21)

tzaddikim (צַדִּיקִים) = persons who are innocent, morally in the right, righteous, just. (From the same root as tzedakah.)

How could all of the people be, or become, tzaddikim? The answer in this week’s haftarah is that God is wrapping them in tzedakah by wiping the slate clean and granting everyone a fresh start, in which they are innocent and dedicated to righteous service, dressed by God in the meiyl of a high priest, a king, a bridegroom.


Thus in the seventh and final haftarah of consolation, God is viewed as a being who grants the Israelites total forgiveness for their past misdeeds, and lovingly wraps them in robes that consecrate them and transform them into perfectly good people.


We all drag behind us the memories of our own misdeeds. Some of us strive to become better people, serving the good and staying on the right side of morality and God. What a blessing it would be for a supernatural being to grant us complete absolution and a fresh start as a human with naturally good instincts and desires!

Yet just as the Israelites who returned to Jerusalem soon began committing new misdeeds, we, too, would stray from the right path. Our new meiylim would fade into a memory, and we would once again face the human condition, in which we are constantly given opportunities to choose our own behavior.

But after all, it is greater to choose to do the right thing than to do it unintentionally. And it is greater to do tzedakah because we have consciously developed good habits than to do it because we have no free will.

Then we can say, with second Isaiah:

            The soul of my body shouts with joy for my God!

            For [God] has dressed me in garments of liberation.

Nitzavim & Yom Kippur: Centripetal Force

by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Moses reminds the Israelites at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“taking a stand”), that everyone standing on the bank of the Jordan River made a covenant with God.  They will take over the land of Canaan, with God’s help, but eventually they will forsake the covenant, and God will drive them out again

When all these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse that I placed before you, vahasheivta to your heart among all the nations where God, your god, has driven you. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:1) 

vahasheivta (וַהֲשֵׁבתָ) = then you will return, revert, recall.  (Vahasheivta is a form of the verb shuv (שׁוּב) = return, turn around, turn back, restore.)

Assyrian soldier drives prisoners into exile
Assyrian soldier
drives prisoners into exile

Why does Moses make such a long-term prediction? Most modern scholars date this section of Deuteronomy to the Babylonian exile, circa 598-520 B.C.E. At that time, Jews had already experienced two exiles from their land.  Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria) in 740 B.C.E. and deported many Samarians to distant parts of the Assyrian Empire. Then Babylonia conquered both Assyria and the southern kingdom of Israel (Judah), and conducted its own deportations from 605 to 588 B.C.E.

Thus “all these things” includes multiple conquests and deportations of Jews.  Jews living (and writing) during the Babylonian exile assumed that their all-powerful god had arranged the curses of subjugation and exile because too many Jews had abandoned their religion. Their own people’s misbehavior had triggered a a divine centrifugal force pulling them away from their center.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses predicts that after 150 years of deportations and exile, a centripetal force would pull them back in to the land of Israel and the presence of God.

Moses lays out five steps to a complete return. In these steps, the people and God take turns moving toward a reunion.

1)  The first step, “vahasheivta to your heart among all the nations where God, your god, has driven you,” is returning to your own heart (the seat of consciousness in Biblical Hebrew) while you still live in a foreign land. In the next verse Moses explains:

Veshavta ad God, your god; and you will listen to [God’s] voice, you and your children, just as I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul.  (Deuteronomy 30:2)

Veshavta (וְשַׁבְתָּ) = And you will return (also a form of shuv).

ad (עַד) = up to, as far as.

The people must reject the gods of the nations where they are living, and cultivate awareness of their own God by listening for the divine voice and paying full attention to it. They must go as far toward God as they can under the circumstances of their exile.

Ezra and exiles return (woodcut by Schnorr von Carolsfeld)
Ezra and exiles return to Jerusalem
(woodcut by Schnorr von Carolsfeld)

2)  Moses predicts that after they have turned their hearts back to God, God will take the second step and return the people to their former land.

God, your god, veshav your fortune and have compassion on you, veshav and gather you from among all the peoples where God, your god, has scattered you.  Even if you strayed to the end of the heavens, from there God, your god, will gather you, and from there [God] will take you back.  And God, your god, will bring you to the land that your forefathers possessed, and you will possess it, and [God] will do you good and make you more numerous than your forefathers. (Deuteronomy 30:3-5)

veshav (וְשָׁב) = will then restore, will then return (also a form of shuv).

3)  Once God has returned them to the land of Israel, the third step is for the Jews to love God.  Loving God is not easy, in this week’s Torah portion; God will have to help humans to do it.

And God, your god, will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your descendants, to love God, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you will live.  (Deuteronomy 30:6)

“So that you will live” means “so that you will thrive”—perhaps materially, or perhaps spiritually.

4)  The fourth step, Moses says, is up to the people:

And you, tashuv, and you will listen to the voice of God, and you will do all [God’s] commandments that I commanded you today. (Deuteronomy 30:8)

tashuv (תָשׁוּב) = you will return (also a form of the root verb shuv).

Once God returns the exiled Jews to their land, Moses predicts, they will become able to obey all God’s rules, as well as listening to God’s voice. Presumably, the people could have obeyed God’s ethical rules and family laws wherever they lived.  But in order to obey the agricultural laws, and in order to conduct religious worship through the system of sacrifices at the altar, they had to live in and around Jerusalem.

5)  The fifth step of return is up to God again:

And God, your god, will add to all the deeds of your hand: in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your livestock and in the fruit of your soil, for good, because God yashuv to rejoice over you for good as [God] rejoiced over your forefathers—because you will listen to the voice of God, your god, to observe [God’s] commandments and decrees, the ones written in the book of this teaching—because tashuv to God, your god, with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 30:9)

yashuv (יָשׁוּב) = he/it will return.

Just as in the first step of return the exiled Jews, called “you”, will bring their hearts back to God, in the final step God will bring Its heart back to the people. The result of God’s rejoicing over the people will be abundant life for the humans, their animals, and their crops.

After this fifth step, both the Jews and God would have made a complete return to one another, in both attitude and practical action.  It sounds like the complete restoration of a marriage after the couple has been estranged and separated.

What if “you” in this week’s Torah portion meant anyone seeking a return from exile, a return to the center, a centripetal path?  The center you return to need not be a particular spot on the globe; it could be a spiritual place.

In the annual cycle of Torah readings, the portion Nitzavim falls either one or two weeks before Yom Kippur, the day Jews dedicate to repentance, forgiveness, teshuvah, and atonement.

teshuvah (תְּשׁוּבָה) = reply, return.  (Yes, it also comes from the root shuv.)

In the Torah and in the time of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, the method used to atone and reach teshuvah with God involved animal sacrifices and sprinkling blood in the Holy of Holies.  (See my post Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles.)  For the last two millennia, the teshuvah of Jews on Yom Kippur has been a matter of prayer, fasting, inner examination, and listening for God with all our heart and all our soul.

Although Yom Kippur is the official day of teshuvah for Jews, anyone might return, any day, to the inner divine spark—and open the way for the divine spark to return to us.

May all people who seek forgiveness, atonement, and reunion find a centripetal path to the holy center.


I wish all of my Jewish readers Shanah Tovah—a good new year—beginning this Sunday evening. I will be on my own centripetal path from Rosh Hashanah (the beginning of the year) through Yom Kippur (the day of atonement), Sukkot, and Simchat Torah, the night when Jews gather to roll the Torah scroll back to the beginning and read the opening of the book of Genesis/Bereishit.  After Simchat Torah (October 5 in 2105) I will dive into the book of Genesis again myself, even as my husband and I move to a new town. How could I resist writing another post on the beginning of creation?

Shemot: Choosing Life

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

At the end of his life, Moses says:

…life and death I place before you, blessing and curse; and you must choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring: le-ahavah God, your god; lishmoa Its voice; and ledavkah It… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:19-20)

le-ahavah (לְאַהַוָה) = to love, by loving.

lishmoa (לִשְׁמֹעַ) = to listen, by listening.

ledavkah (לְדָוְחָה) = to be attached to, to stick with, to be faithful to; by sticking with, etc.

At the beginning of his life, in the first Torah portion of the book of Exodus/Shemot, Moses survives only because the women in the story choose life—by loving, listening, and being attached.

The character who wants to restrict life is Pharaoh, a xenophobe. He is frightened by the large number of Israelites living in Egypt (called “Hebrews” or ivrit in this Torah portion, from the Egyptian word habiru). This unnamed king of Egypt says:

…it may be if a war happens, then they will even be added to our enemies and wage war against us, and go up from the land. (Exodus/Shemot 1:10)

Goshen and the new cities of Ramses and Pitom
Nile delta circa 1250 B.C.E., with the capital, Tanis, and the new cities of Ramses and Pitom

Pharaoh fears that the Hebrews will either stay in Egypt and fight against the Egyptians, or leave Egypt and deprive the land of workers. His solution to this double anxiety is to reduce the population of Hebrews gradually. First he drafts large numbers of them into forced labor building the new cities of Pitom and Ramses (which were actually built in the Nile delta, in the Goshen region, during the reign of Rameses II). But so many Hebrew men survive and have relations with their wives, the population of Hebrews continues to increase.

Pharaoh’s next ploy is to order the midwives of the Hebrews to kill all the boys as they are born, but let the girls live. At that time, more than 3,000 years ago, only men would go to battle, and only men would lead their families to another country. Women would do whatever their masters or husbands ordered. Pharaoh is thinking ahead, assuming that a future surplus of Hebrew women is no threat, since they would all become slaves or wives of native Egyptians. All he wants to do is reduce or even eliminate the future population of Hebrew men.

But the midwives feared God, and they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they kept the boys alive. Then the midwives said to Pharaoh: Because the Hebrews are not like Egyptian women, for [they are] lively animals; hey!—before the midwife comes to them, they have given birth. (Exodus 1:17-18)

In biblical Hebrew, to “fear God” is an idiom meaning to act righteously or ethically. The Hebrew midwives save lives, instead of following orders, because it us the right thing to do. They are listening—not to Pharaoh, but to the God of good deeds.

Then Pharaoh commanded his entire people, saying: Every son that is born, you shall throw him into the Nile. But every daughter you shall keep alive. (Exodus 1:22)

The Torah does not say how many baby boys are drowned, but we can tell that this command is also ineffective at reducing the number of Hebrew men; many years later, after that Pharaoh (probably Rameses II) has died and been replaced by a new Pharaoh (probably his son Merneptah), the new Pharaoh says: Hey, the people are numerous now in the land! (Exodus 5:5)

During the period when the previous Pharaoh was encouraging Egyptians to drown Hebrew male infants, a man and woman from the tribe of Levi have a son. (Later in the Torah, their names are given as Amram and Yokheved.)

And the woman conceived, and she gave birth to a son. And she saw him, ki tov hu, and she hid him for three months. (Exodus 2:2)

ki tov hu (כִּי־טוֹב הוּא) = that he was good.

Commentators have puzzled over whether the mother saw that her baby was exceptionally healthy, or beautiful, or placid and quiet, or good in some other sense. Both the Talmud (in Sotah 12a) and the Midrash Rabbah (in Shemot Rabbah 1:20) report the opinion of the Sages (i.e. authoritative rabbinic commentators from about 200 B.C.E. to 500 C.E.) that when Moses was born, the whole house was flooded with light. Their proof text is in the first chapter of Genesis/Bereishit, where God creates light.

And God said: Light will be! And light was. And God saw the light, ki tov. (Genesis/Bereishit 1:3-4)

What I can imagine is that when the mother sees her new baby, her heart is flooded with light. Just as God creates light, and sees that it is good, a human experiences creation as good.  When I “create” a story, it feels as if I only shaping a story that comes to me from some unknown place, and when I have finished writing it down, I feel elated, knowing that something good has happened. Similarly, when I was pregnant, I felt as if I were a container for a mysterious process, and when my son was born, I felt elated, knowing that something good had happened.

Moses’ mother hides him to preserve his life because she sees the goodness of creation; in other words, she appreciates God the Creator. She loves her son, and she loves God. As a mother, she also attaches herself to her son until she can no longer protect him.

Then she was not able to hide him anymore, so she took for him an ark of papyrus, and asphalted it with asphalt and pitch, and she place the child in it, and she placed it in the reeds at the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself meirachok, to know what would be done to him. (Exodus 2:3-4)

meirachok (מֵרָחֹק) = at a distance, long ago, mysteriously.

In context, Moses’ older sister Miriam obviously stands at a distance from the riverbank. But the Torah’s choice of words hints that Miriam has a connection with mysteries.  When we see her as an adult, the Torah calls her a prophet.

Miriam stands by, ready to intervene and make whatever happens to her baby brother the best possible outcome. This is a different kind of attachment than a mother’s attachment to her baby. Miriam the prophet is faithful to a vision of the future that she wants to help realize.

Meritamun, one of Rameses II's daughters
Meritamun, one of Rameses II’s daughters

Then the daughter of Pharaoh went down to wash in the river, and her serving-women walked on the riverbank; and she saw the ark among the reeds, and she sent her slave-woman, and she took it. And she opened it, and she saw the child, and hey!—the boy was sobbing. And she felt compassion over him, and she said: This is one of the children of the Hebrews! (Exodus 2:5-6)

Pharaoh’s daughter decides to disobey her father’s command and save the life of the baby because she listens to him sobbing, and her heart is moved by compassion. This is another kind of love, the instinctive and generous love for a living being who needs help. It leads to another attachment, as she decides to protect the child by adopting him as her own.

Miriam emerges and offers to find a woman to nurse the infant. If Pharaoh’s daughter can see that the baby in the ark is a Hebrew, she can certainly see that Miriam is also a Hebrew, and she may suspect that the girl is offering to fetch the baby’s own birth mother. A jealous woman would not agree to this, but Pharaoh’s daughter has so much compassion that it includes the baby’s family. When Miriam returns with her mother, Pharaoh’s daughter says: Carry away this child and nurse him for me, and I myself will give [you] your wages. (Exodus 2:9)

Pharaoh’s daughter not only gives the baby to his natural mother until he is weaned, but even pays her, so the whole family will thrive. Then Moses’ mother proves to be as righteous as the midwives at the beginning of the story, because when her son is old enough, she duly returns him to his adoptive mother.

Thus Moses grows up as a prince of Egypt, and launches on a long life that results in the liberation of thousands of slaves. They leave Egypt (as Pharaoh feared) and walk into a new life.

All the women in this story—the midwives, Moses’ first mother, his sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter—choose life by disobeying the fearful Pharaoh, and keeping a child alive. They are motivated by all three ways of choosing life that Moses describes near the end of his own life, 120 years later: loving, listening, and faithful attachment.

May we all be blessed with open hearts so that we can do the same.

Nitzavim: Concealed and Revealed

Hanistarot is for God, our god; and haniglot is for us and for our children forever to do all the words of this Torah. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 29:18)

hanistarot (הַנִּסְתָּרֹת) = what is hidden, concealed, secret.

haniglot (הַנִּגְלֹת) = what is revealed, uncovered, exposed.

In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“taking a stand”), the sentence above is wedged in between two predictions. The first is that the Israelites will worship other gods and then God will destroy their land and exile them. The second is that eventually the Israelites will return to God and God will return them to the land.

Does the sentence about what is concealed and revealed have anything to do with Moses’ two predictions?  Since the sentence follows Moses’ prediction that the Israelites will commit the “sin” of worshiping other gods, some commentary assumes the hanistarot/haniglot statement is about sins. According to Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), it means that if a sin is committed so secretly that nobody could discover it, then God is responsible for punishing the individual offender. But if a sin is committed openly, it is up to the community to punish the offender; “and if we do not execute judgment upon these, then the whole community will be punished” by God.

Other commentators relate the hanistarot/haniglot statement to the sentence that follows it, where Moses predicts that the exiled Israelites will return to God, and then God will gather them all back to the land of Canaan. In this case, what is concealed is the length of the exile. The future is always hidden from human beings. What is revealed is what we should do in the meantime: all the words of this Torah.  In other words, we and our descendants must strive to obey the 613 rules in the Torah as much as we can. (See last week’s post, Ki Tavo: Writing in Stone.)

A third strand of commentary, starting in the Talmud, interprets “what is secret (hanistarot) is for God” as a warning to individuals against pursuing arcane mystical knowledge.  “What is revealed (haniglot)” is the Torah, which is good for us to study.

A pardeis at Shiraz (modeled after a garden of King Cyrus of Persia)
A pardeis at Shiraz (modeled after a garden of King Cyrus of Persia)

In the Babylonian Talmud (written by rabbis living under Persian rule in the first few centuries C.E.) the tractate Chaggigah mentions rabbis who taught about Ezekiel’s mystical vision of the chariot. Then it points out the dangers of pursuing arcane knowledge by offering a story about four great Torah scholars who entered a pardeis.

Pardeis (פַּרְדֵּס), often translated as “paradise”, is a Persian word for an orchard or an enclosed garden. Chaggigah 14b uses a pardeis as an image of the “upper worlds” of heaven, a realm of spiritual truth divorced from the physical world.

The four famous scholars who enter the pardeis in this story are Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, the “other” (Elisha ben Avuya), and Rabbi Akiva, their senior. Ben Azzai glimpses the divine presence, abandons his body, and dies. Ben Zoma glimpses the divine presence, suffers from a consuming a surfeit of “honey”, and loses his mind. Elisha ben Avuya, the “other”, glimpses the divine presence, but sees a duality: God versus an angel (Metatron) who is sitting and recording the merits of Israel. The Talmud says Elisha “chopped down the shoots” of saplings, i.e. became a heretic who separated God (the root) from the angel (the shoot). Only Rabbi Akiva comes out of the pardeis safely.

When the scholars are entering the pardeis, Akiva warns them that they will see pure marble stones that appear to be water, but they must not say “water, water”. Perhaps Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, and Elisha ben Avuya were unable to distinguish between polished marble and water—that is, between two key points in mystical understanding of the divine—and the result was death, madness, or heresy.  Hanistarot, what is secret, belongs to God, and very few can perceive one of God’s secrets and remain whole.

In the 12th century B.C.E., Rambam (Moses Maimonides) wrote that the hidden secret (hanistarot) in the sentence from this week’s Torah portion is Kabbalah, and the revealed wisdom (haniglot) is the Torah.  Those who learn Kabbalah must still take care to observe the rules of the Torah in the world of physical action.


Today I encounter people who are so fascinated by mysticism that they ignore the Rambam’s advice, and spend all their energy pursuing an “oh, wow!” state of mind. Sometimes I get the impression that anything arcane and mysterious attracts these people, as long as it is non-logical and only tenuously related to the world we live in. These ungrounded mystics seem to assume they can transcend the rules in the Torah and rise above their own psychological (soul) issues.  They appear to be more concerned with feeling love, than with thinking about what actions might be loving.

I also encounter people who want to “do all the words of this Torah”, but prefer specific rules about physical actions over admonitions to change their heart and soul.  If they are Jews, they may be strict about keeping kosher, but not so thorough about loving their fellows as themselves. Examining their own psyches in order to love other people is too much for them.

In between these two types are the people who cautiously mine mystical claims for insight without trying to enter pardeis.  They are enthusiastic about how religion can be applied to ethics and personal insight. Figuring out how to love one’s fellow as oneself, for example, is more important to them than either feeling ecstatic or following all the rules.

I want to belong to that third group. I want to investigate my own soul and stay grounded in my life here on earth. I want to borrow an occasional idea from Kabbalah without getting lost in it, and I want to use the Torah’s concrete rules as guidelines for behavior, to be reinterpreted if following the letter of the law gets in the way of following its spirit.

So I can subscribe to first part of the sentence from this week’s Torah portion:

Hanistarot [what is hidden] is for God, our god, and haniglot [what is revealed] is for us and for our children …

But I would like to end the sentence this way:

to study all the words of this Torah, and apply them thoughtfully to our lives.


Nitzavim: Still Standing

Moses by J.J. Tissot

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 Egyptin other words, the converts.  Moses even includes low-status converts, those who gather wood and draw water for the Israelites.

Journey from one border to another

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 nitzavimAre 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?

Everyone else

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.

  1. 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 Canaanhence the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.
  2. 11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki.