Commentary for Nitzavim-Vayelech

30 Aug

The first chapter of this week’s parshah, chapter 29, contains the standard warning to the Israelites that we have seen throughout Deuteronomy: The Israelites need to follow God’s commandments when they reach the Promised Land or else God will punish them harshly and expel them from the Promised Land. This week’s unique spin on that theme is that if the Israelites do not obey God’s commandments, the wrath He pours out upon them will be so harsh that its devastating results will be clearly visible generations and generations later, to the point where the new inhabitants of the land will be compelled to wonder what could have happened here that God decided to strike the land of harshly.

The chapter then ends with the most well-known verse in this week’s Torah reading (Deut 29:28) “The those that are hidden are for the Lord our God, and those that are revealed are for us and our children forever to apply all of the instructions of this Torah.” The reason this verse receives so much attention is twofold. The first reason, and most obvious from the physical text, is the presence of a series of dots above many of the letters in the letters in the words “for us and our children forever.” These dots, which appear nine other places in the Torah imply some hidden knowledge in the verses, words, and letters over which they appear (though many Rabbis believe that there presence here in this verse about secrets that belong only to God and revelations that are for us implies that this knowledge will remain hidden to us until the coming of the Mashiach, or any other such time as God chooses to reveal it).

The other reason this verse has received so much attention is the vagueness of the text as to the subject of this verse. What is either “hidden” or “revealed?” Some believe it refers to Divine secrets, while others believe it is indicative of a difference in the way God meted out punishment to the Israelites during the time they were in the desert and after they crossed into the Promised Land, but the most widely-accepted answer is that this verse is talking about our deeds, both good and bad, and our responsibility to monitor them, both as a community and as individuals. It is not our place as individuals or as a community to judge who we think is stingy in their donations to charity or who doesn’t say the Shema every morning and night or who might secretly be worshiping idols. Those are issues between an individual and God and they are no one else’s business. It is our place both as individuals and as a community to see that justice is done, that everyone is treated fairly, that the needy are cared for, and that our sacred traditions are cared for and respected. These things falls to us so that our society will set a good example for our children, so that one day they may become the keepers of a just society to pass down to their children, and they to their children for all time.

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