Commentary for Nitzavim

11 Sep

This week’s parshah contains one last warning from Moses to the Israelites. He tells them that they are being given a choice: they can follow in God’s ways and live happy, fulfilled lives in tranquility in the Promised Land; or they can disobey God and face the consequences.

After Moses’ introduction, the first part of the speech is a dire warning about what will happen to those who choose to spurn God. No matter if it is one whole tribe, one family, or just one single person, these will be their punishments. Moses describes the desolation that will befall these sinners and their land as “just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gemorah, Admah and Zivoyim (Deut. 29:22),” four cities destroyed by God for the wicked conduct of their inhabitants. From there on, Moses speaks of returning to God and great blessings the Israelites will receive for serving God, including the privilege of living in the Promised Land.

The section ends with the famous phrase referring to sin: “The hidden ones are for the Lord our God, while the revealed ones are for us and our children forever to apply all of the instructions of this Torah (Deut. 29:28).”   Just because we know God will always punish the sinner eventually does not mean that we are not obligated to do so as well.   In fact, we are required not merely to punish criminals, but to actively deter crime in our society. The Talmud tells us that if we see or know of someone who is about to commit a crime, we need to warn that person that they are about to do something wrong.

In a previous description of the punishments that will befall the Israelites if they spurn God, we are told that “a man will stumble over his fellow as if in flight from the sword, but there is no pursuer (Lev. 26:37).” The Gemarah, after a lengthy discussion about how our sins result in tarnishing those around us, interprets this as meaning “man will stumble because of his fellow’s iniquity,” and then concludes with the famous teaching “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh– all of Israel is responsible for one another (Shevuot 39a).”

Interestingly, the four cities listed above were destroyed by God for not abiding this very concept. Ezekiel 16:49 describes them as not looking out for the poor in their communities. Jeremiah 23:14 explains that they made no attempt to deter others from wrongdoing, therefore creating a society where doing evil was encouraged. Pirkei Avot 5:12 warns us that “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours… and there are some who say that this is a characteristic of Sodom.”

Standing as a counterpoint to this is attitude is our forefather Abraham. Abraham was renown for his generosity and hospitality. When his nephew, Lot, was taken captive as a result of a war started by the kings of those four cities, Abraham led his forces into battle to rescue Lot, refusing to receive any spoils of victory for his help other than his nephew’s freedom.

As Moses reminds the Israelites in this week’s parshah, it is on Abraham’s merit that they are to inherit the Promised Land, and thus it is Abraham’s ways we must seek to emulate. “One mitzvah brings another mitzvah and one transgression brings another transgression, for the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah and the reward of a transgression is a transgression (Pirkei Avot 4:2).” Our deeds affect those around us and our attitudes affect our society. If we act morally and serve God, then we, too, will enjoy all of the blessings that Moses describes to the Israelites in this week’s parshah.

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