10 September 2015

Parashat Nitzavim 5775

27 Elul 5775
Erev Shabbat Kodesh

Parashat Nitzavim: Choose Life!

by Daniel Pinner
This year Parashat Nitzavim is read alone, and is not combined with Parashat Vayeilech; this happens on average in about 40% of years. In any event, Parashat Nitzavim – whether read alone or together with Parashat Vayeilech – is invariably read on the final Shabbat of the year.

Our calendar was deliberately calibrated this way: “Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said: Ezra determined for Israel that they would read the curses in Leviticus [in Parashat Bechukkotay, Leviticus 26:14-43] before Shavuot, and those in Deuteronomy [last Shabbat in Parashat Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 28:15-68] before Rosh HaShanah. What is the reason? – Abayye said – and some say that Reish Lakish said: So that the year together with its curses should finish” (Megillah 31b).

The Rambam cites this as practical halachah, and adds: “Thus the simple custom is that we read…Parashat Nitzavim before Rosh HaShanah” (Laws of Prayer and the Priestly Blessing 13:2). Similarly the Shulchan Aruch: “We always read…Parashat Nitzavim before Rosh HaShanah” (Orach Chaim 428:4).

Since this saying originates with Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, we have to know who he was in order to understand the full import of his saying.

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar was a fifth-generation Tanna (late 2nd century); he was one of the outstanding disciples of Rabbi Meir, who was in turn the closest disciple of Rabbi Akiva.

Rabbi Akiva was the spiritual leader of the Bar Kochba Revolt – the last, desperate attempt to restore Jewish sovereignty to the Land of Israel. Under the inspiration of Rabbi Akiva and the military command of Shimon Bar Kochba, the Jews in Israel achieved what no other nation in history ever managed: they kicked out the Roman Empire, and restored their own independence.

True, their victory was short-lived: the Roman Emperor Hadrian brought in the best general in the entire Empire, Julius Severus, from Britannia, and charged him with crushing the Jewish revolt. But for nigh on three years, the inspired leadership of Rabbi Akiva and Shimon Bar Kochba achieved the impossible.

Rabbi Akiva dedicated his life – and ultimately his death – to the Torah and to the Land of Israel (which topic we will delve into deeper, God willing, in next week’s D’var Torah on Parashat Vayeilech).

It was from this well-spring – Rabbi Akiva, the quintessential scholar-warrior ­– that Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar was ultimately nourished, and so it is through this prism that we should examine his saying.

The curses which we read last Shabbat in Parashat Ki Tavo are intimately connected with the Land of Israel. The punishments for not obeying the Torah begin with seemingly natural misfortunes in the Land of Israel – crop failures, disease epidemics, and droughts (Deuteronomy 28:16-24). Then come attacks by foreign hostile armies (v. 25), and the consequences of hostile military occupation (vs. 26-35). Next follows the exile of the king and part of the nation (v. 36), life in exile becoming increasingly harsh (vs. 37-39), and life for the remnant in Israel becoming increasingly miserable (vs. 40-63). And then comes the final and bitterest punishment of all – the majority of the nation flung into exile, scattered among the nations to the ends of the earth, subjected to unceasing persecution and massacres (vs. 64-68).

According to the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270) in his commentary to Leviticus 26:16 and Deuteronomy 28:42, the curses in Parashat Bechukkotay presage the Babylonian exile, and the curses in Parashat Ki Tavo presage the Roman exile.

In his commentary to Deuteronomy 28:42, he relates the curses to specific events at the end of the second Jewish Commonwealth. He begins with the warning that “Hashem will lead you and your king...to a nation whom you do not know” (Deuteronomy 28:36), which he says presages the subjugation of King Agrippa, who ruled Judæa from 37 to 44 C.E., to the Roman Emperors Vespasian and Titus who conquered the Land.

Stage by painful stage, the Ramban demonstrates how the Roman conquest of Judæa and the subsequent exile follow the curses in Parashat Ki Tavo with absolute precision.

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, the disciple who had imbibed the value of the Land of Israel from his master’s master, Rabbi Akiva, and who was living through the period in which the Land was under increasingly cruel Roman occupation, with more and more Jews being carted off daily into slavery in exile throughout the Roman Empire, understood the implications of the curses in Parashat Ki Tavo only too well.

More than anyone else, he yearned for “the year together with its curses to finish”.

And then, the following week, the final Shabbat of the year, comes Parashat Nitzavim. This parashah contains Moshe’s final parting from the Children of Israel, his farewell to the nation he had loved and cherished and nurtured and led from a slave-nation mired in the depths of slavery to idolaters, to a free nation poised on the verge of coming back home.

And in Parashat Nitzavim, Moshe continues by warning of the devastation that God will inflict upon the Land of Israel for the Children of Israel’s sins:

“The later generation – your descendants who will arise after you, and the foreigner who will come from a distant country and will see the plagues and the sicknesses of this Land with which Hashem has afflicted it...it cannot be sown...and no herbage will grow on it... – all these nations will say: Why has Hashem done thus to this Land?! What is this great burning fury?! – And they will say: It is because they abandoned the Covenant of Hashem the God of their fathers, which He forged with them upon taking them out of the land of Egypt... So Hashem’s fury flared up against that Land, bringing the entire curse that is written in this Book upon it. And Hashem exiled them from their country with anger and fury and great wrath, and flung them into another country...” (Deuteronomy 29:21-27).

This is a sobering thought with which to end the year, a clarion call to repentance at this season of repentance, in these final hours before the days of judgement are upon us.

And repentance is inextricably intertwined with our return to the Land of Israel: it is no coincidence that the Hebrew verb shav means both “repent” and “return”  “You will repent [or return] to Hashem your God...and Hashem your God will return your captives and He will have compassion on you; He will gather you from among all the peoples unto which Hashem your God scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the very ends of the Heavens [‘the furthest from the Land of Israel’ – Ibn Ezra] – from there Hashem your God will gather you, and from there He will take you. And Hashem your God will bring you to the Land which your fathers inherited, and you will inherit it” (30:2-5).

This all gives us a truly invaluable insight into Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar’s dictum. For sure, we “read the curses...in Deuteronomy [in Parashat Ki Tavo] before Rosh HaShanah...so that the year together with its curses should finish”.

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar speaks directly about the curses which the sins of the generation had brought upon the Land of Israel. His dictum is a passionate prayer that now, in this season of judgement, our repentance will be sufficient for God to return us to our Land.

Ezekiel, the prophet of the exile, echoed the words of Parashat Ki Tavo when he sounded out his clear warning: “As I live, says Hashem God – I will reign over you with mighty hand, and outstretched arm, and with fury poured out! I will bring you out from among the peoples, and I will gather you from the countries in which you are scattered with mighty hand, and outstretched arm, and with fury poured out!” (Ezekiel 20:33-34).

Two generations ago, we saw God’s “fury poured out” as the murderous fire raged across Europe, slaughtering Jews in numbers we had never witnessed before. If only  – if only Jews in their millions would have ascended to the Land of Israel when they had the opportunity...how different Jewish history would have been.

We missed that opportunity – missed it hideously, tragically.

And today?

Today, the greatest and most secure Jewish communities in the world (in the exile, that is to say) face greater instability and uncertainty than at any time in centuries. Europe shudders and totters before our very eyes, the USA rumbles, South Africa collapses – and almost the only certainty is that when cataclysm hits, then all sides will inevitably blame the Jews for the devastation.

There is yet time for every Jew to come home in peace and safety, while the old order yet holds (even though it may be gasping its final breaths). Every Jew in exile yet has the time to make his and her leisurely way to Israel, with body and wealth intact.

For how long? – No one can tell. Maybe days, maybe decades – but the stormfront draws inevitably nearer. The maelstrom of history is forcing Jews the world over to make a choice: stay in your lands of exile, with the ever-closer looming threat of extermination – or come home to Israel. Israel, in the very heart of the tempest – yet one of the very few countries in the world which is not shaken by that tempest.

Dear Jew, look at the world in which you live. Do you think it is just coincidence that the turmoil of the Middle East is now threatening to engulf the entire world  – except for Israel? Can you still delude yourself that it is mere temporary happenstance that Syria, Lebanon, and Libya are today more of a threat to France and Britain, thousands of kilometres away, than they are to Israel, on their very borders?

The final words of Parashat Nitzavim sound the clearest tocsin of all: “See – I have given before you today the life and the good, and the death and the bad... You will live and you will multiply, and Hashem your God will bless you, in the Land to which you are coming to inherit it... I have called Heaven and earth to bear witness today: Life and death I have given before you, the blessing and the curse. So choose life! So that you will live, you and your offspring!” (Deuteronomy 30:15-19).

With these words, these warnings, these entreaties ringing in our ears, we end the year 5775 and await to see what the new year 5776 will bring.

Choose life!
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Shabbat shalom~