Parshat Nitzavim – Rosh Hashana Message for 5776
As the hour draws closer to our New Year which will mark the end of the sabbatical year, there is a feeling in the air that something big is about to happen. The reason for this impression comes from the fact that man was created on Rosh Hashanah. This unique day is not just a time of recollection but in reality it is happening all over again. This coming Monday man will be created for the 5776th time! The year 5775 will be remembered as a year of chaos and turmoil. The bloody battles in the Middle East, Ukraine, and Africa have left hundreds of thousands dead and displaced many more. Thousands of migrants have lost their lives at sea trying to seek refuge. Israel as usual faces many difficult challenges. The newest one being the signing the nuclear agreement between America and Iran. The European Union continues in full force in their attempt to delegitimize Israel’s right to the land of Israel. Just this week fresh out of the oven came the latest European Union decision of marking Israeli products made in Judea, Samaria, Golan, and Jerusalem. The Jewish community throughout the world is threatened with the rise in antisemitism.
This is not surprising, as our tradition has it that a Sabbatical year can be marked by war and turmoil and that it has the potential to be followed by the coming of Messiah. Why does the Sabbatical year have the power to bring about such upheaval and turmoil? Why is there so much suffering and evil in the world? Is all this necessary for the coming of the Messiah? How can we have a positive influence on the situation?
Looking into this week’s portion, which happens to always comes out the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana, we can shed light on some of these important questions. Parashat Nizavim opens up with the forming of another covenant between Israel and Hashem. Before we explain what the meaning of what this covenant is all about, I want to review the different covenants mentioned in the Torah between Hashem and His servants until this week’s portion – Nizavim. A covenant is an agreement between two sides. Both sides have the responsibility of upholding their part of the contract. A sign is chosen as a reminder that the covenant is binding. Examining the different covenants brought down in the Torah we see an interesting phenomenon. Gradually, through the forming of these different covenants the world is being brought to maturity as the Divine plan of creation unravels. Each covenant marks a turning point in History.
After the evil generation of the flood which was marked by extreme immorality, the time had come for mankind to begin to rectify itself. At this point in history, G-D was patient with man and all he wanted was a world that would refrain from evil and build a society based on a basic moral code. This is what the first covenant with Noah was all about. Hashem agreed never to bring another flood of destruction to mankind and Noah was to focus on populating the world and teaching them the seven basic laws of ethics. The rainbow was chosen as a symbol of this agreement.
As the world continued to grow and develop Hashem saw that the time had come for another stage of the Divine plan to unfold. This was the task of Abraham. The second covenant between Hashem and man is known as the “Brit Beyn Habitarim. Hashem promises to Abraham that a nation will rise from his loins and that he will inherit the land of Israel. Abraham’s response was “How will I know that I will inherit the land”? Hashem’s immediate reaction is setting up a covenant with Abraham. Abraham is asked to take three animals and two birds. The animals were cut in two while the birds are to remain intact. The animals and birds represent the kingdoms that will rule throughout history until the final redemption. Hashem promises that although the children of Israel will suffer a test of faith through a long exile of 400 years eventually, they will make it to the land of Israel their everlasting inheritance. The lesson we learn from this covenant is that even during the darkest periods of exile we must continue to have faith in Hashem that he will redeem us and return us to the land. Abraham’s questioning the fruition of the Divine promise can be interpreted as a weakness of faith. It wasn’t enough for mankind to remain complacent with a simple moral code now the time has come to draw closer to the creator by demonstrating their total reliance on Him. Relying on Hashem can make the impossible a reality. Abraham’s whole life was a proof of how the impossible becomes doable if you put your total devotion to G-D. The miraculous birth of Isaac is a perfect example of this. Who would ever dream that two elderly individuals can have a child? It is interesting that this covenant of faith is coupled with the promise to inherit the land. In other words, only from the land of Israel can this level of faith be truly attained. Hashem wants Abraham to set up a nation centered on faith in the land of Israel.
The next covenant mentioned in the Torah is another one formed between Hashem and Abraham. It is the famous covenant of circumcision. Here, not only Hashem reinforces the fact that Israel will inherit the land, but that Hashem will be our G-D. Abraham must take upon himself not only the mitzvah of circumcision but also to be a father to many nations. Faith has to be tested through positive actions. The male reproductive organ represents the greatest gift to man – the ability to create life. Human beings emulate the creator by bringing new lives in the world. On the other hand, miss use of this gift can lead to the worst of iniquity. By undergoing circumcision we are testifying to Hashem that we will use this gift morally and sanctify ourselves. This is a giant step forward for humanity that is constantly tempted through this aspect of life. Only the holy can overcome the dangers of temptation. This becomes clear later on with Joseph the great grandson of Abraham proving to all how this is ingrained in Abraham’s seed. This covenant was also marked by the giving an additional letter to Abraham’s name and earning the title – father of many nations. This means that it wasn’t enough to give birth to the people of Israel but his offspring would be responsible for being a light to the nations. This mission could be achieved only after this chosen nation would be born. The result of Abrahams entering into this covenant leads to the birth of the nation of Israel!
This leads us to the next “Brit” that took place when the newly formed nation of Israel received Torah on Sinai. Israel took upon itself to fulfill the entire 613 commandments of the Torah. G-D betrothed His chosen people who responded – “we will do and listen”! Sinai was likened to a bridle canopy covering over the bride and groom. The Torah was the contract of matrimony and the land of Israel was to be their home and the temple was their private quarters. This would seem to be the height of the Divine plan – the formation of a chosen people that follow Torah in the land of Israel.
Unfortunately, things did not go so smoothly. Immediately after receiving Torah, the nation committed the sin of the Golden Calf. Hashem tells Moshe that he wants to destroy Israel and that he will make Moshe Rabeynu into a great nation as he promised. This is similar to the generation of the flood that was destroyed and Noah was chosen to serve as the continuation of humanity. Moshe Rabeynu, as a true leader, is not willing to give up on the nation of Israel. He prays to Hashem and requests two things: that G-D will not destroy Israel that he will not continue to be angry with them. Hashem agrees not to destroy His nation but does not yet relinquish His anger. Moshe Rabeynu then breaks the two tablets and burns and grinds the calf into powder. He then scatters the dust on the water and makes Israel drink it. Our tradition teaches us that this is likened to the bitter water that the Sotah must drink. Three thousand Israelites are killed. Moshe Rabeynu ascends Mt. Sinai again and prays for a second time for Hashem’s forgiveness. Moshe Rabeynu requests to be erased from the book of life if G-D will not forgive His people. Hashem accepts Moshe Rabynu’s supplication to some extent but not completely. Hashem tells Moshe to lead the nation into the land of Israel and that G-D will send and angel to help him. On the other hand, he sends a plague to the nation. (The Torah does not elaborate on this plague) The sending of the angel was a sign that Hashem Himself at this time is still not willing to go with Israel. Although, this is a punishment this was for Israel’s benefit since Israel is a stiff necked people having Hashem Himself lead us into the land could awaken His wrath. Nevertheless, the nation is not pleased with this and mourns by not adorning any jewelry. G-D then tells Israel not to adorn jewelry even after the mourning period. This symbolizes that the true adornment is the Shechinah – the Divine Presence. Israel will settle for nothing less! Moshe Rabeynu sets up his tent outside the camp and the Divine presence resides in his tent. This is a sign that Israel repented and that although the Divine Presence still does not reside amongst them directly – it is in their eyes view. Moshe Rabeybu continues to pray and Hashem agrees to lead Israel Himself and not send an angel. He is asked to prepare a second set of tablets and a new covenant is made. The last 40 days Moshe spends on the mountain in deep prayers are the 30 days of the month of Elul and the ten days of repentance. He comes down with the new set of tablets on Yom Kippur. The next day he announces the collection of the half a shekel for the building of the tabernacle – the place where the Divine presence will reside again. G-D has forgiven His people!
The important message of this covenant is the tremendous power of repentance through the 13 attributes of mercy. In addition it stresses the everlasting relationship between Hashem and the people of Israel that can never be severed. Even if we stumble Hashem will always leave the door open for us to rectify.
This week’s portion opens up with another covenant adding another dimension to the picture. It is called the covenant of responsibility – Areyvut in Hebrew. Before Moshe Rabeynu passes away he brings us into another level of spirituality marked by an additional covenant, the last one mentioned in the five books of the Torah. Here the people of Israel are taught that we are not in this alone. The religion of Israel is not like other religions that are based on personal relationships between each individual and Hashem. In reality all of Israel is one organism that works as a team. This special connection is called Kinneset Yisrael. Everyone of Israel is part of a painting that provides a unique color to the masterpiece. If one color is lacking the entire painting will be unfinished. It is like a human body that if one limb is hurting the entire body goes into distress. This can be seen in the book of Joshua when Achan sins by taking of the spoils of Jericho – G-D blames all of Israel for sinning. This is why the portion is called Nitzavim – which means standing in Hebrew. All of Israel stands together as one unit in covenant. Moshe Rabeynu is bringing this new covenant to the house of Israel before he leaves the world. This covenant will only take effect in the land of Israel. The covenant is set into motion by crossing the Jordan River and standing on Mt. Grizim and Aval together with the building of the alter and writing the Torah in 70 languages. We learn from this that being a light to the nations depends on Israel taking responsibly for one another just as Judah did for Benjamin. The Divine plan wants all of humanity to know Hashem. This will only happen when Israel will build Hashem’s Kingdom in the land of Israel.
The result of this covenant is that if Israel does not unite with one another the painting is left unfinished. Not only does the entire house of Israel suffer but the entire world as well. Leaving this covenant unfulfilled will send waves throughout the world causing chaos and turmoil. The nations turn against Israel. All this happens because Hashem wants us to finish the masterpiece. He wants us to unite as one nation in the land and fulfill our goal as a light to the nations.
The Sabbatical year adds another dimension to the picture. Like the covenant of Shabbat, which is a time of rest and reflection, so is the Shmitah year. Shabbat always brings a blessing over of the past week of labor. By resting be are confirming that Hashem created the world and that all the blessing of our labor is from Him. In a similar way, the Sabbatical year is the end of 6 years of hard agricultural labor. Our refraining from working the land testifies to our covenant of faith in Hashem. By doing so we are declaring that all blessing of livelihood comes from Him. When the Shabbat and the Sabatical year are not observed as they should be this awakens judgment from the heavens and it sends its waves throughout the world. This is why the nations come against Israel. Hashem wants to clarify our connection and endless devotion to Him and the land of Israel. Claiming that other people have a right to the land of Israel, is in other words an attempt to break the covenant between Israel, the land, and Hashem. G-D wants the people of Israel and all those that love Him to stand up for truth and not let the covenant be broken. The Divine plan will be achieved only when all these covenants are upheld. Every year we must all make an accounting both on a national and individual scale to see how we are adding our unique part to the masterpiece of the Divine plan.
This is what Rosh Hashana – the Day of Judgement – the day G-D created man is all about. G-D judges us for not being ourselves. G-D will ask us – why haven’t we finished adding our unique color to the painting? Judgment is the comparison of where a person is to where he should be. This explains why we blow the Shofar as well. By sounding the shofar we draw on our innermost part of our souls trying to bring our potential into fruition. Eventually we will achieve the goal of the Divine plan and we will all rejoice in the light of Hashem. The world will be a beautiful place to live in and all of humanity will know Hashem. This is summed up perfectly by the prophet Jerimiah.
“Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, and I will form a covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, a new covenant. Not like the covenant that I formed with their forefathers on the day I took them by the hand to take them out of the land of Egypt, that they broke My covenant, although I was a lord over them, says the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will form with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will place My law in their midst and I will inscribe it upon their hearts, and I will be their God and they shall be My people. And no longer shall one teach his neighbor or [shall] one [teach] his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know Me from their smallest to their greatest, says the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity and their sin I will no longer remember. (Jerimiah 31:30-33)
Shanah Tovah Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith