Nitzavim (Standing)

NitzavimDeuteronomy 29:9 to 30:20

As they are about to enter the Promised Land, Moses prophesizes that the people will stray from God’s way and be expelled from the land. But, through tshuvah – repentance – they will regain God’s love and return to the Promised Land.

The title of this week’s parsha, Nitzavim (standing), refers “those who are standing here with us this day before the Eternal our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” Moses is speaking to all Israelis/Jews… those present… those not present … and all future generations. Moses states he is making a covenant between God and the present generation, and all future generations. (Deut. 29:29:9-14)

Moses goes on to note that in the future, generations will stray from the Eternal and be exiled from the Promised Land. But, after the people take the first steps toward repentance, the Eternal will take them back in love and restore their fortunes. (Deut.30:1-10)

The Vilna Gaon (Also known as Eljah of Vilna or Elijah Ben Solomon – 1720-1797) viewed this redemption as part a world history he envisioned through his interpretation of Torah. Looking at the history of the world, and assuming the age of the world will be 5776 next week; he saw the events of creation in Genesis as the first 1,000 years of history…. The second 1,000 years hidden in the rest of Genesis…. The third 1,000 years retold in Exodus…. The foundation of the faith, expressed in Leviticus, and set in the fourth 1,000 years…. The journey to the re-establishment of Israel, the fifth 1000 years, is told in Numbers…. And the sixth 1,000 years, the present time, corresponds to the final book, Deuteronomy,

We are about to enter the year 5776, part of the sixth 1,000 years which correspond to Deuteronomy. Since the Book of Deuteronomy contains ten parshot (counting Nitzavim and Vayeiech as one, since they usually appear as a double parsha) each portion lists to the events of this sixth century. Based on this explanation, it has been noted that the greatest tragedy in modern history, the Holocaust, is hinted at in parsha Ki Tavo which contains threats of terrible suffering that will befall the Jewish people.

Then in the next parsha, Nitzavim – our current reading – consolation can be found. It is commonly referred to as the portion of repentance. And, as predicted by the prophecy, the years since WWII have seen the return to the Land – reestablishment of the State of Israel – and an extraordinary wave of repentance as Jews return to their roots. (Parsha Potpourri by Rabbi Ozer Alport, as it appeared on Aish.com ) Rabbi Alport lives in Brooklyn where he teaches and writes on Torah.)

As stated above, repentance is of major importance in this week’s text. Much has been said about this “repentance” or tshuvah in Hebrew traditions. The process of tshuvah is more than just saying “I’m sorry.” It’s translated to mean “returning to a life of performing mitzvah deeds as defined by the Torah.” Commentators point out that Moses uses the form of the verb shuv, or “turn,” seven times is his last speech to the Israelites. This repetition emphasizes that the message of Tshuvah is desirable and possible. Moses tells the people that failure to follow God’s commandments may lead to punishment… but not God’s abandonment. It is taught that God waits for repentance and return. A society or a person can always make tshuvah and “return” to God. (Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Vol. III, p, 168-9)

Then, rabbinic tradition adds another dimension to this “return. “If we begin to incline towards regretting the wrongs, God moves with us, pushing us toward admitting and correcting our errors.” An ancient sage, Rabbi Jassa, restates this by saying: “God says to us, ‘Make an opening for repentance as large as the eye of a needle, and I will make it large enough for wagons and carriages to pass.’”(Ibid, p.169)

But, that doesn’t mean that repentance is simple. Joseph Albo (14th century Spanish philosopher) notes that “Tshuvah is neither automatic or easy. It requires a careful, painstaking process of ‘correcting thought, speech, and behavior.’ By ‘correcting thought,’ he means that a person ‘should feel regret for the wrongs he has done to others.’ By ‘correcting speech,’ he means that a person should confess his wrongs.’ By correcting behavior,’ he means that a person’ pledges never to repeat the wrong again and takes on deeds meant to rectify any damages done, intentionally or unintentionally. For Albo, repentance is more than a pious expression of regret. It moves a person toward a change of heart, mind and behavior. (Sefer haIkkarim 4:26 as stated in Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Vol. III, p, 169.)

A modern interpretation of tshuvah comes from Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983, co-founder of the Jewish Reconstructionist Movement) who states; “tshuvah stands for nothing less than the continual remaking of human nature…. Repentance has the potential for repairing ‘three types of failure.’

The first type is the failure to not make our impulses, habits, social activities, and institutions in harmony with those ethical ideals that make God present in the world. An example of this is a person who is busy helping and feeding the poor…. But, at the same time, is careless and hurtful in family relationships. Through tshuvah we can examine what we are doing and close the gap between our “aspirations” and our behavior.

The second type of failure is “fixation” … ceasing to change and grow as human beings. Rabbi Kaplan notes that at various stages of our lives we develop different responses and habits. What is acceptable for a child or a teen, may be inadequate – or even dangerous -for an adult. For example, as a child we rely on parents and teachers. As an adult we must mature and take care of ourselves and also contribute to the entire community. Repentance, Kaplan claims, helps us “recognize the inadequacy of our acquired personality to do justice to the demands of a new situation.” It spurs our ethical growth.

The third type of failure is the failure to realize “to the fullest degree the potentialities inherent in our natures and in the situations in which we find ourselves…. For example, we will plunge into petty arguments with others or refuse to cooperate because of jealousy, rather than build friendship and enjoy the benefits of trust and mutual support, Through the introspection of tshuvah, we cover how we waste our potentials and discover how we should use them creatively and constructively, not only for ourselves, but for our society.

The act of repentance, Kaplan concludes, is meant for the reconstruction of personalities in accordance with the highest ethical possibilities of human nature. (The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, pp. 178-187 as cited in Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Vol. III, p, 171)

In these days before the High Holidays, it is the time to look at ourselves and the world around us and act with tshuvah to create a world in which the words of Torah shape our lives.

Earl Sabes

Photo titled “Work/Life/Balance” courtesy of Stuart Miles at

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