RABBI ABNER WEISS’ WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING
WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
CONSERVING AND ADAPTING
You are all of you standing [atem nitzavim] this day before the Lord your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers, even all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives and the stranger that is in the midst of the camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water. (Deut. 29:9-10).
The Hebrew word nitzavim in our text is richly suggestive. The usual translation “you are standing” does not adequately capture its subtle nuances. If the text simply meant “you are standing,” it would have read: atem omedim. What, then, does the verb nitzavim convey?
Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (1289-1363), the so-called Ba’al ha-Turim, points out that the word nitzavim is twice used to describe the stance of the Children of Israel in their collective experience in the wilderness. The first instance describes how they were arrayed at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments: Va-yityatzvu be-tachtit ha-har. (Ex. 18:17). The second time this verb is used is in our text, which describes its ratification. Accordingly, this verb describes the stance of Israel at the initiation of its Covenant with God and also at its final renewal by Moses at the end of his life.
On its face, the Ba’al ha-Turim’s comment does not resolve the problem. Because the verb nitzavim describes the stance of the Israelites, it would seem that the more commonplace verb omedim could as easily have been used in both contexts. Why, therefore was the more unusual verb nitzavim chosen?
According to Ramban, the verb nitzavim conveys the sense of omedim u-mezumanim –standing ready. In contrast with the more static omedim—standing still it projects dynamic tension. The Children of Israel are portrayed not merely as standing, but as standing by, ready for commitment and action.
Rabbi Abraham Menachem Porto (Rapoport, d.1596), the author of the Minchah Belulah commentary on the Torah, detects a further nuance in the use the word nitzavim: The noun form of the verb nitzavim, hityatzvut, conveys the sense of a vigorous standing up for a hotly disputed position. In their confrontation with Moses, Datan and Aviram were described as nitzavim. In this sense, the word nitzavim means standing up for one’s principles, taking up cudgels in defense of one’s beliefs, demonstrating readiness to fight for one’s ideals just as Datan and Aviram were ready to fight and die for their beliefs—however mistaken those beliefs were. The verb nitzavim is therefore appropriately used for the Covenant at Sinai and its ratification by a new generation forty years later. The covenantal community is characterized by its willingness to stand up for the perpetuation of its commitments.
The interpretations of Ramban and the Minchah Belulah are not really dissimilar. Both convey the notion of standing ready to take a stand and defend sincerely held convictions.
I should like to suggest a third interpretation of the term nitzavim. The verb omedim describes a physical position. The verb nitzavim, in contrast, describes an emotional, psychological, or spiritual attitude. Omedim simply means to stand. Nitzavim means to stand ready, to stand for and to stand firm. In the context of the acceptance of the Covenant and its subsequent affirmation, it suggests steadfast determination to preserve and conserve. Those people who are nitzavim personalities resist winds of change that whittle away old certainties and weaken longstanding commitments. The term nitzavim characterizes the quintessentially Jewish reverence for and commitment to preserve traditional norms and values.
Martin Luther King once declared that the person who stands firmly for nothing will fall for everything. Such an individual is the antithesis of the nitzavim personality type.
Parashat Nitzavim is often read together with Parashat Va-yelekh. They read as point and counterpoint. The opening theme of Nitzavim is, as we have seen, resistance to change, whereas the opening theme of Vayelekh is radical change.
After a lifetime of inspired leadership, Moses announces that his passing is imminent and that he is to be succeeded by Joshua. The change is dramatic. Moses had been leader extraordinaire. Groomed to become the next Pharaoh, he was a well-trained and experienced military and political leader. Gifted with an innate moral compass, he was simply unable to compromise on absolute ethical ideals for personal gain—even at the cost of a brilliant future in Egypt. Unprecedented in his prophetic powers (he was the only prophet in direct, unbroken communication with God), he was lawgiver and social engineer par excellence. But all that was about to change, and a far less charismatic, far less powerful personality was to lead the Israelites to their destiny.
Point and counterpoint, the juxtaposition of Nitzavim and Vayelekh represents the dialectic tension between stability and change, conservation and progress, past and present/future. Prima facie, the antitheses are irreconcilable. Judaism, however, seizes both horns of the dilemma, remaining committed to the traditions of the past and successfully integrating them into the realia of the present. Ancient precedents shape and determine contemporary legal and ethical positions. The Bible and Talmud, for example, do not explicitly relate to such modern issues as brain death definition or genetic engineering, but using legal precedents in the Codes and the Responsa literature contemporary decisors have ruled on these and a host of other pressing issues.
Jewish practice conserves the old while incorporating it into the new. This is why Jewish law is called halakhah—walking forward. Rav Kook summarized this uniquely Jewish synthesis of the Nitzavim-Vayelekh dichotomy in his memorable dictum: ha-yashan yitchadesh ve- ha-chadash yitkadesh—The old is renewed and the new in sanctified.
Rav Kook’s formulation is an appropriate goal for every area of our lives—especially in the lead up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the season of return-teshuvah. If we are able to return to the ideals we held dear prior to our having become jaded by experience, or that have been dismissed because of disappointments and cynicism, our return will truly represent a healthy renewal of the old and a revitalization of our being. Conversely, if we can also sanctify what is new in our lives, we shall come to personify the Nitzavim-Vayelekh ideal.