Gidon Rothstein

Five Rashis, Nitzavim: The Insistence on Good Choices

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

Becoming Fellow Travelers

With Moshe’s life rapidly nearing its end, he is wrapping up last-minute business. One piece of that is bringing the Jewish people to re-enter and reaffirm their covenant with Hashem, which opens this parasha. The verb in verse eleven, לעברך, to pass through, a covenant with Hashem, leads Rashi to point out that covenants were enacted with a specific ritual. Two parallel walls would be set up, and those entering the covenant would pass through the walls together.

Rashi quotes Yirmiyahu 34;18 as support, where the Jews made a covenant with Hashem, killed a calf, split it in two and passed through the pieces. We might remember it more from Avraham’s famous ברית בין הבתרים, covenant between the pieces, where Hashem told him to split some animals—a calf, goat, ram, dove, and pigeon. We don’t hear of Avraham walking through the pieces, but verse seventeen tells us that a תנור עשן ולפיד אש, a smoking firepot and a blazing torch, presumably symbolizing Hashem, passed through them.

Rashi doesn’t explain why that was the concretizing act of a covenant, and I have refrained from speculating too much in these essays. Let me briefly suggest that walking together (my father a”h memorably reminded me, more than once, of Amos 3;3, הילכו שנים יחדו בלתי אם נועדו, do two walk together, except that they have agreed? Setting up a path and walking it together, between two boundaries (perhaps symbolizing each one’s independent view) expresses their intent to be fellow travelers, to walk into the future together.

As the Jews were agreeing to do with Hashem.

Irrevocable Treaties—Potential for Abuse and Source of Comfort

Verse twelve explains that the covenant is to establish that Hashem is the Jews’ God, for all time. Rashi first says that this is a warning, in light of Hashem’s many promises to the Patriarchs that their descendants would never be cast aside for some other nation. That tempts overconfidence on the people’s part, thinking they could do whatever they want, because Hashem cannot get rid of them. This covenant was to remind them that they have sworn to keep the Torah, to do as Hashem told them, and will incur liability if they fail to do so.

Then Rashi offers a Midrash Aggadah that goes in the opposite direction. The previous parashah had 98 expressions of curse or punishment, with another 49 back in the tochachah in Vayikra; the Jews were abashed at the prospect of trying to live up to those standards. That’s why Moshe came in this parashah to reassure them that, for all that they had mis-stepped many times in the desert, Hashem never destroyed them, and here they were, standing before Him.

The Jews were walking not just between two walls, but between extremes. Hashem cannot reject them, which might lead to taking the relationship too lightly. At the same time, Hashem’s dire punishment might seem almost worse than abandonment. This covenant limits both extremes, saying that we will never be cast aside and also never destroyed. We can’t take it too lightly, but shouldn’t be too daunted, either.

A Nation’s Responsibilities for Its Citizens

Verse twenty-eight tells us that that which is hidden is for Hashem to deal with, but that which is open is for the Jews and their descendants. Rashi reads the verse as a response to the Jews’ fear that they were going to be held accountable for the private, unknown sins of others, since an earlier verse had said that the covenant was being made in order to warn those who might be thinking they could get away with doing as they wished.

We’re not responsible for what we cannot know, Hashem says. But that evil which is open and known, that’s our responsibility to remove. If we don’t, Rashi adds, we will all be punished. This is an element I think is missing from today’s conversations—Rashi is reminding us that the public bears an obligation to remove evil from its midst, and failure to do so has consequences. That’s even if that evil does not damage the public in any ways other than that they’ve failed to rein it in. And that’s even if the person doing this particular evil is otherwise good or nice, someone we like, someone who’s done us many favors.

He then adds a note, based on the dots that appear on tops of the words לנו ולבננו. Recall that the Torah is mostly written without dotting; the dots above “for us and our descendants” don’t tell us how to read those words, but were assumed to carry some meaning. Rashi suggests it is that the community did not assume that responsibility for punishing public evil until after crossing the Jordan. Before, they were apparently too inchoate a society to have to police themselves. Ever since, though, it’s part of building a proper Jewish society to remove evil, just as part of our job in building a community that lives out Torah values.

Hashem in Exile

30;3 speaks of Hashem bringing back the exiles, but uses the verb for return in the form ושב, when והשיב would more simply mean to make others return. From there, our Rabbis inferred (Rashi tells us) the Divine Presence, as it were, is with us in the troubles of exile. When we will be redeemed, the Divine Presence, too, will return as well.

In this context, I think it’s important to mention a story R. Lichtenstein frequently quoted (you can find it here). “A woman once asked my neighbor Leib Rochman, a Holocaust survivor, “Where was God during the Holocaust?” He replied, “He was with us.” That is the only response: “I am with him in distress” (Tehillim 91:15).”

Rashi then adds an element that turns out to be remarkably prescient. That same verse speaks of Hashem returning שבותך, your exile, in the singular. The simple explanation is that the Torah sometimes refers to groups in the singular. Rashi knows this, but adds that it foreshadows the idea that the eventual return to Israel will be a most individualized process, Hashem figuratively taking each Jew by the hand, individually, and leading each one back, as Yeshayahu 27;12 says, that we will be collected one by one.

It’s one of those examples where Rashi and other traditional sources make a claim they had no reason to think would be true, only to have it turn out that way. For many, many people, Aliyah is an individual story. True, there have been mass migrations, but many of those who make it to Israel do it in their own way at their own time. Rashi’s suggesting that this verse predicts that, and that it’s Hashem guiding us by the hand.

Life’s Not a Choice

Verse nineteen tells us that Hashem (and Moshe) is placing before us life and death, good and evil, and we should choose life. Rashi comments that Hashem is commanding us here, to choose the path that leads to life. He compares it to someone who is offering an inheritance to another, and says, “choose well,” but then takes him to the piece of land to choose. Hashem is telling us to choose life but also showing us which of the paths facing us is the path of life.

There’s two parts here that I note. First, that we’re required to choose life is no longer obvious to people, and therefore bears stressing—life (and not just the physical act of breathing, but of building a meaningful and active contribution to Hashem’s world) is not a choice, it’s an obligation (we can hope it’s a joy as well, but even if it’s not, it’s an obligation). Second, and equally too often ignored, it’s not a yes/no choice. It’s adopting a path, a path of life; medically, that includes diet and exercise, etc. For Hashem and Moshe, it includes that our actions be the ones that lead on the road to life, ephemeral and eternal.

It’s a narrow path, the path of goodness and life, and it asks a lot of us, especially as a public community needing to uproot evil from its midst. The comfort is that Hashem is always and irrevocably with us in this path, in exile and at home.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.