The portions of Nitzavim and Vayelech read this week, almost bring to a finale the “Devarim” the words of Moses, that have filled the aptly named Book. Nitzavim opens with a dramatic, timely yet timeless statement, fittingly declared as we enter the Days of Awe. “You stand this day, all of you, before your God…” In the ensuing verses a striking term is used, 29:11
לְעבְרְךָ֗ בִּבְרִ֛ית יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּבְאָלָת֑וֹ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כֹּרֵ֥ת עִמְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹ
To enter, (to pass) into the covenant of your God, which your God is concluding with you this day…
The verb le’ovrecha is unusual, it brings to mind la’avor which as well as meaning to cross/pass over, may also mean to transgress. To confute that possibility Rashi qualifies the intention that the word implies to actually fulfill the covenant, rather than passing over it or even transgressing it. But here too the Hebrew he uses is almost clumsy, and certainly unusual לַעֲשֹׂתְכֶם אֹתָם to make you do them. Why use this ambiguous phrase, appearing only once throughout the Torah?
Whilst this form of the word may be unique, the root is remarkably common, particularly in this portion, conjuring and capturing the many fundamental ideas and experiences that will indeed pass from one generation to the next. In a period of introspection we are essentially being invited to listen to those echoes of eternity, to recall our stories and associatively reveal some of the core moments through the salient words used to depict them.
Abraham was the first person to be described as Ha’ivri, the person from the other side. Joseph in an accusatory manner was so called by the (nameless) wife of Potiphar who bought him as a slave from the Ishmaelites. The Ivri alludes to Me’ever, from the other side, or perhaps simply and in a discriminatory manner, the other. In the memories that we will evoke again on Rosh Hashanah, the opening of one of the foundational stories renders Abraham beseeching his guests, Bereishit 18:3;
וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ אַל־נָ֥א תַעֲבֹ֖ר מֵעַ֥ל עַבְדֶּֽךָ׃
He said, “My lords! If it pleases you, do not go on past your servant. In his plea with God not to destroy the people of Sodom the term בַּעֲבוּר֙ Ba’avor, for the sake of is used repeatedly as he negotiates the number of righteous people in whose sake the city will not be destroyed. In one of the most moving prayers Jacob later declares, 32:11, (beautifully put to song by Yonatan Razel)
קָטֹ֜נְתִּי מִכֹּ֤ל הַחֲסָדִים֙ וּמִכָּל־הָ֣אֱמֶ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתָ אֶת־עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֣י בְמַקְלִ֗י עָבַ֙רְתִּי֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֣ן הַזֶּ֔ה וְעַתָּ֥ה הָיִ֖יתִי לִשְׁנֵ֥י מַחֲנֽוֹת׃
I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.
In the Book of Shemot, the term becomes the noun used to describe the Jewish People, as the ominous plan to annihilate them unfolds, Shemot1:15,16
וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת אֲשֶׁ֨ר שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאַחַת֙ שִׁפְרָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖ית פּוּעָֽה׃
The king of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,
וַיֹּ֗אמֶר בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן֙ אֶת־הָֽעִבְרִיּ֔וֹת וּרְאִיתֶ֖ן עַל־הָאָבְנָ֑יִם אִם־בֵּ֥ן הוּא֙ וַהֲמִתֶּ֣ן אֹת֔וֹ וְאִם־בַּ֥ת הִ֖יא וָחָֽיָה׃
saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.”
There are multiple additional examples, all prompted by this unusual term, ushering us through the journey that propounds the very essence of our identity and purpose.
In coming almost full circle, at the beginning of his final sermon, Devarim 3:25,26, Moses entreats God to allow him to enter and see the land of Israel, using again that telling phrase.
אֶעְבְּרָה־נָּ֗א וְאֶרְאֶה֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן הָהָ֥ר הַטּ֛וֹב הַזֶּ֖ה וְהַלְּבָנֽוֹן׃
Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and Lebanon.”
Teasingly, and tragically using the very same expression in His response;
וַיִּתְעַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֥ה בִּי֙ לְמַ֣עַנְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֵלָ֑י וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֤ה אֵלַי֙ רַב־לָ֔ךְ אַל־תּ֗וֹסֶף דַּבֵּ֥ר אֵלַ֛י ע֖וֹד בַּדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּֽה׃
…God was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. God said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!
The ambivalent if not perplexing phrase succinctly captures how everything is in the balance, how the responsibility to pass our memories and duties on, does not imply to pass over them as in ‘this too shall pass’, rather this too shall and MUST pass. The directive is in our very name, delineating the directive to at any given time, have the capacity to be “nitzavim” showing or standing up, Hayom, today, actively taking part in the multi generational conversations that illuminate and guide our calling in the world.