Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nitzavim - The Eternal Covenant and Free Will

In Parshas Nitzavim Moses continues his farewell speech to the Jewish people. The parsha is devoted primarily to the topics of galus (exile) and geulah (redemption). It begins with a declaration of the eternal nature of the ברית – the covenant – between God and the Jewish people, which the Torah describes as a permanent covenant for all generations to come. “Not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath; but with whoever is here with us today before Hashem our God, and also with whomever is not here with us this day.” (Deuteronomy 29:13-14) As the sedrah will describe, this obligates us to be eternally loyal to God and it assures us that God will never abandon us.

Therefore, if the Jewish people violate the covenant by turning towards foreign gods, then God will punish us harshly (as described in last week’s sedrah) and exile us from our land.

Moses concludes this prediction of exile with the famous verse (Deuteronomy 29:28):

הנסתרות לה' אלקינו והנגלות לנו ולבנינו עד עולם לעשות את כל דברי התורה הזאת:
“The secrets are for Hashem our God, and the revealed are for us and our children forever, to fulfill all the words of this Torah.”

This verse is the subject of many commentaries. Rashi (d.1105) explains it to refer to the punishment that comes upon the nation for the sins of individuals. The nation is not punished for the secret sins committed by individuals. Such sins are between the sinner and God. Sins committed in public, however, require a communal response. If the community fails to respond to sins done publicly, then the community bears a degree of guilt as well. כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה – All Jews are responsible for each other.

After describing the exile, Moses continues with the prophecy of the ultimate return of the Jewish people to God. Eventually the Jewish people will do teshuva - repent - and will return to complete observance of the laws of the Torah. God will then bring the redemption; He will gather the exiled Jews from throughout the world and return us to the Land of our Ancestors. All those who oppressed and harmed the Jewish people will be punished and the Jewish people will live a life of abundance, in obedience to His Will.

The sedrah concludes with the powerful declaration that obedience to the Torah is not an impossible goal (Deuteronomy 30:12-14):

לא בשמים הוא... ולא מעבר לים הוא... כי קרוב אליך הדבר מאד בפיך ובלבבך לעשתו:
“It is not in heaven… Neither is it beyond the sea… Rather, the word is very close to you, in your mouth and your heart, that you may do it.”

God has placed a choice before us (30:15), "ראה נתתי לפניך היום את החיים ואת הטוב ואת המות ואת הרע" "See, I have placed before you today life and good, and death and evil,:" and He demands from us (30:19), "ובחרת בחיים למען תחיה אתה וזרעך" "and you shall choose life, that you may live, you and your children!"

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein
Rav Moshe Feinstein (d.1986) notes that when Moses describes the choice that is placed before us, the verse says, "ראה נתתי לפניך היום" – “See, I have placed before you today.” Rav Feinstein explains that the the word היום – “today” –  teaches us that this decision is one we make each and every day of our lives; will we go on the path of life and good or the path of death and evil? Each day stands on its own as a new decision.

This means that no matter how badly we may have drifted astray in the past, every day is a new opportunity to begin again. Every day we can make – in fact, we do make – a new decision that is independent of the past.

Similarly, no matter how righteous we may have been in the past, we must never grow overconfident; each day is a new decision in its own right. The possibility of choosing the wrong path is always there, even after many years of righteousness.

This lesson is one of particular significance in the days before Rosh HaShana, when we are about to go before the Heavenly Court for judgement. Even with only a few days left, we can still choose to change our lives for the better.

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