Commentary for Nitzavim

5 Oct

One of the major themes of this week’s parshah is the interaction between God, individuals, and society. It lays out obligations that we as a society have to God, and explores how the actions of individuals towards each other affect society, how the actions of individuals towards society affect each other and vice versa, and how all of those interactions can affect society’s relationship with God.
As part of this message, we are told that the Torah is not too divine or spiritual or complicated for us to understand; a message that serves as both encouragement to individuals who wish to learn and as a warning to society that “we didn’t know any better” is not a valid excuse for tolerating rampant immorality. To help achieve both of these goals, the Great Assembly instituted the weekly system of public Torah reading that we still use today.
One way that the actions of an individual can affect society is through the proper- or improper- reading of the Torah. It is imperative not only for the words to be read correctly, but also with the correct cantillation, which serves as both emphasis and punctuation to help make the meaning of the words more clear. Even the pauses between the cantillation are important to get right, for the rare occasion that their omission changes the meaning of a verse.
The usual textbook example of the occasion on which the omitting the proper pause in the cantillation can drastically alter the meaning of a verse occurs in this week’s parshah. Deut. 29:19 tells of the punishment that will befall a brazen, arrogant sinner, concluding with the warning that “the LORD will erase his name from beneath the heavens.” While the convention of capitalizing pronouns that refer to God makes it easy for us to understand the meaning of the verse when it is both translated and then written out for us, verbal communication (such as Torah reading) and languages that do not have capital letters (such as Hebrew) lack this technology. As a result, without the proper cantillation and pauses, it is possible for the verse to be incorrectly understood as saying that it is God’s own name that God will remove from the earthly realm at the sight of one willing to unapologetically flaunt his or her continued wrongdoings before society.
The exacting requirements for the correct reading of the Torah for the community do not just prevent miscommunications and misinterpretations, but can also be used to teach deeper lessons. Taken on its own, the correct reading of this verse is a harsh warning to the brazen sinner that he or she will be severely punished, but when contrasted with the incorrect interpretation, it becomes a message to us all: although we may see people who brazenly flaunt their sins, this does not mean that God has retreated from the world because God does not flee in the face of human immorality. God has not abandoned us, and God has not forgotten them, either. If we take their current lack of punishment as permission to follow their example, we will share in their fate.

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