Parshas Nitzavim is a direct continuation from the end of Parshas Ki Savo, which we read last week. The main theme of Ki Savo was the Tochacha, the Admonition, in which Moses describes, in very harsh and frightening terms, the terrible punishment that awaits the Jewish people, as a people and as individuals, when they fail to obey the commandments of the Torah. Parshas Ki Savo ended with Moses again assembling the Jewish people for another speech, the bulk of which is in Parshas Nitzavim.
In this speech, which is a follow-up to the Tochacha, Moses begins with a very brief review of their history so far (i.e. the Exodus from Egypt and the forty years in the desert) and then, in Parshas Nitzavim, he goes on to discuss the eternal covenant between the Jewish people and God, and the critical concepts of galus (exile) and the ultimate geula (redemption). As understood by the commentaries, part of Moses’ intent in this speech was to reassure the Jewish people that despite the apparent harshness of the Tochacha, the Jewish people would always survive and that, as long as the road may be, the inevitable end of history would be the return of the Jewish people to God and their ultimate redemption from exile.
The idea that this speech was intended partly as a reassurance to the Jewish people after the harsh words of the Tochacha is made explicit in a midrash (cited by Rashi, 29:12). The parsha opens with Moses’ declaration (Deuteronomy 29:9), “You are all standing today before Hashem your God.” The Midrash states:
למה נסמכה פרשת “אתם נצבים” לקללות? לפי ששמעו ישראל מאה קללות חסר שתים, חוץ מארבעה ותשע שבת”כ, הוריקו פניהם ואמרו, “מי יוכל לעמוד באלו?” התחיל משה לפייסם, “אתם נצבים היום” – הרבה הכעסתם למקום ולא עשה אתכם כלייה, והרי אתם קיימים לפניה!(Deuteronomy 29:9)
Why was the parsha [that begins with] “אתם נצבים” – “You are all standing [today before Hashem your God]” placed next to the curses (of Parshas Ki Savo)?(Deuteronomy 29:9)
Because, when the Jewish people heard the ninety-eight curses (of the Tochacha), aside from the forty-nine curses in Leviticus (in an earlier Tochacha passage in Parshas Bechukosai), their faces turned pale and they said, “Who can survive these [curses]?” Moses began to reassure them, “You are standing here today!” – You have angered God many times and He has not destroyed you, and behold you are still standing before Him!
Although this midrash clearly indicates that part of Moses’ intent in this parsha was to reassure the Jewish people after the harsh words of the Tochacha, it itself requires explanation. At first glance, Moses seems to be saying that we don’t really need to take the Tochacha that seriously, for, after all, God hasn’t destroyed us yet, has He? However, it should be self-evident that this was not Moses’ intent. If God tells us, repeatedly and emphatically, that our sins can lead to terrible punishment, then it would be utter folly to dismiss this as mere rhetoric. Indeed, as Jewish history has made clear all too many times, the curses of the Tochacha are very real.
In addressing this question, the great mussar teacher, Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian (d.1970) explains that it is critical to understand that the purpose of punishment is never simply as “punishment” – i.e. simply to take vengeance against the sinner for his actions. Rather, the purpose of all punishment is for the benefit of the sinner, to break through the hardness of his heart and to motivate him to repent. He cites an analogy given by the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, d.1797) to planting a field. Before a field can be planted, the field must first be plowed over, so that the hard surface of the field is broken and the field is able to accept the seeds. Similarly, the Vilna Gaon explained, before a sinner can repent, the hardness of his heart needs to be “broken” so that the seeds of repentance can take root and grow. This is the meaning of the verse in Psalms (51:19), “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Thus, Rabbi Lopian explains, punishment is only necessary when our hearts are hardened to our sins. If our hearts are already softened, if we already acknowledge our sins and genuinely regret them, then there is no need for actual punishment. Thus, he explains, when Moses saw that the Jewish people took the message of the Tochacha to heart, to the point that their faces turned pale, he told them that itself was sufficient to spare them from the destruction of the Tochacha. Moses’ point was that, ultimately, the punishments of the Tochacha will only befall those who fail to take it seriously. Indeed, Moses makes this point explicitly a little later in the parsha when he says:
Perhaps there is among you a man or woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from Hashem our God… and when he hears the words of this curse, he blesses himself in his heart, saying: ‘I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart”… God will not be willing to forgive him, and then God’s anger and jealousy shall be kindled against that man, and all the curse that is written in this book shall lie upon him, and God shall erase his name from under heaven.(29:17-19)
Ultimately, the curses of the Tochacha will only befall those who have no fear of the Tochacha. However, those who take the message of the Tochacha to heart, who recognize that they have sinned and that they need to repent, have already, through that very recognition, achieved the intended purpose of the Tochacha and have no need for the actual punishments.
This principle is actually alluded to in the text of the Tochacha itself (in last week’s parsha), where we read (28:47) that the suffering of the Tochacha will befall the Jewish people “because you did not serve Hashem your God with joy and a good heart.” Many commentaries struggle with the meaning of this verse, which seems to imply that the reason for their punishment was that, even though they served God, they failed to do so with sufficient happiness. This raises a number of difficulties in that, not only does it seem to contradict other verses, but it also seems to be a disproportionate response.
However, some commentaries understand the intent of the verse quite differently, as saying that the punishment of the Tochacha will befall the Jewish people when they are in a state of “joy and good heart” even while not serving God and obeying His commandments. Thus, the Beis Yitzchak explains:
Even if a person is wicked and fails to serve God at all, but he is troubled and pained by this, such a person is not fully wicked, for there is hope for him that he will repent and return to God. However, one who is so wicked that he feels no concern at all about his wickedness, but is perfectly happy with his sinful behavior, there is no hope that such a person will come to repent [on his own initiative].
The punishments of the Tochacha are intended as a wake-up call for those who are so immersed in sin that they no longer even feel bad about it. On the contrary, they are perfectly happy with their behavior and see no reason to change. It is for such people that the punishments of the Tochacha are necessary to soften their hardened hearts and awaken them to teshuva (repentance).
This principle is used by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (d.1883) to explain an enigmatic Talmudic passage (Nidda 70b) which discusses an apparent contradiction between two Biblical verses. In chapter 18 of the book of Ezekiel, the prophet describes the great power of repentance and concludes (18:32), “For I do not desire the death of he that [should] die [for his sins], says the Lord, Hashem; [rather] repent and live!” This verse clearly states that God does not desire the death of the sinner.
Yet, in the book of I Samuel (2:25) we find, in the case of the sinful sons of Eli, that the verse states, “that God desired to kill them.” So we find that, at least in some cases, God does desire the death of the sinner!
The Talmud resolves the apparent conflict with the brief statement, “Here [in Ezekiel] it speaks of those who repent and here [in Samuel] it speaks of those who do not repent.” The problem, of course, is that the verse in Ezekiel is explicitly speaking of a person who has not repented!
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (אור ישראל ל’, וראה גם ספר חכמה ומוסר ב:רמד) explains that in this context, “those who repent” does not refer to those who engage in full fledged repentance for their sins, but merely to those who are troubled and pained by their sins, for such a person is already on the path of repentance. In regard to such a sinner, even if he has not yet repented, God says that He does not desire his death. However, with regard to a sinner who is entirely untroubled by his sins, and of whom there can be no expectation of repentance, of such a sinner we are taught that God desires his death.
This principle is particularly important at this time of year, as we approach the Day of Judgment on Rosh Hashana and we turn to God and ask Him to grant us a new year of life and happiness. As we stand before God in judgment for our sins, we recognize that, when all is said and done, we are very far from being able to genuinely repent from all of our sinful behaviors. How then can we stand before God and ask Him to forgive us, if we know that we will continue to do many of the same sins next year as well?
Of course, part of the answer is that we have to find some area – even if very small – in which we really do improve ourselves. But what about everything else? Is God simply going to ignore it all?
From what we have just learned, however, we can see that if we truly feel bad about our sins, even if we are not yet capable of changing for the better, then God will, to some degree, temporarily overlook those sins and give us time to grow and eventually reach the point where we will be able to truly repent.
It follows from this that one of our main tasks at this time of year, from the beginning of the month of Elul until the closing prayer of Yom Kippur, is to work on an honest assessment of our weaknesses, to acknowledge that we need to improve, and to genuinely desire to do so. If we accomplish this, even if it only manifests itself in what, superficially, seems to be only a minor improvement, then we can truly turn to God with confidence that He will grant us a good and sweet new year.
May we all merit to have a kesiva v’chasima tova!
Rabbi Eliezer Abrahamson