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September 24, 2022: Parashat Nitzavim – The Act of Repentance

This week’s parashah is taken from Deuteronomy 29:9—30:20. Listen in as David delves into what Moses meant as he addressed the Children of Israel "standing" ("Nitzavim") before Hashem, and how this is connected to the powerful act of repentance ("teshuvah").

Follow along in the AUDIO PODCAST, by clicking on the play button below, and reading along with the notes, as you listen to today's Parashat:

In this week’s Torah portion – Parashat Nitzavim, Moses continues his great and final speech to the Israelite nation standing before him. The word “Nitzavim” means “standing”. Here, the Children of Israel were “standing” before Hashem. And as we will see, the act of “standing” is a precursor to the great act of “repentance”.

And so we open the Torah portion to the following words in Deuteronomy 29:9:

אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם

“You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your God.”

First, take note that the word “nitzavim” is a participle in plural form (singular form is “nitzav”), in the present tense. We’ll come back to this later.

Second, the use of the word “nitzavim” (“נִצָּבִים”) in itself is quite interesting. A more common word to denote “standing” would have been to use the word “omed” (“עֹמֶד”), which also means “standing”. However, these words are not entirely synonymous. “Omed” tends to be used in a more general sense or even in a position of servitude as in Genesis 19:27 (destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah): “And Abraham arose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before Hashem.” However, “nitzav” (singular form) differs in that it tends to be used for one standing in a position of authority, as in Genesis 28:13 (Jacob’s ladder): “And behold, Hashem was standing over him.” As you can see, the use of “nitzavim” in the context of this week’s parashah is interesting as the people are “standing” before Hashem. What Moses was saying here to the people is that they were standing in an elevated status before Hashem. Not only that, but there is a stress on “all of [them]”.

Moses continues (Deuteronomy 29:9-10): “Your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers – all the men of Israel; your small children, your women, and your convert who is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water.”

From the highest to the lowest, from those in authority to those hewing wood and drawing water… man and woman, child and convert alike. All of them were standing before Hashem on equal footing here on the plain of Moab.

Moses continues in the next verse to explain why they are standing today (Deuteronomy 29:11-12): “…for you to pass into a covenant of Hashem, your God, and into His oath that Hashem, your God, forges with you today, in order to establish you today as a people to Him and that He be a God to you as He spoke of you and as He swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”

The purpose of their standing is to pass into a covenant and oath with Hashem, with the language conjuring up images of the initial covenant forged by Hashem with Abraham. Back in Genesis 15, Hashem asked Abraham to cut in half 3 heifers, 3 goats and 3 rams (in addition to 1 whole turtledove and 1 whole fledgling), after which Hashem’s Presence passed between the pieces, marking the initial forging of the covenant with Abraham and his descendants. It was at this event where Hashem promised the Land to Abraham’s descendants (Genesis 15:18): “On that day Hashem made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants have I given this land.’”

In this week’s parashah, Moses was tying their standing there on the plain of Moab as an equivalence to passing into the covenant just like Hashem led the way in passing between the parts as a sign of his forging of the covenant with Abraham. Here, the people… the descendants of Abraham, were reciprocating in like fashion. Here, it was their turn to pass through as a sign of their acceptance of the covenant, on the eve of their entering into the Promised Land.

This is all about remembrance and reflection of the original covenant made to Abraham, about the reciprocation and renewal of that covenant. It is because of that same covenant to Abraham that they were now entering the Land. And, it was also that same covenant that they were to remember, guard and preserve all the days of their lives, and from generation to generation.

This renewing of the covenant was intended to stave off any decay in their connection with Hashem that may arise through the passage of time. Think back to the duration of several hundred years between the death of Jacob in Egypt and the birth of Moses – a time when the Jewish people grew greatly in numbers and became heavily influenced by the Egyptian society amongst which they had become a part of.

As the people stood here on the plain of Moab, they were to remember the covenant forged with Abraham, which was the same covenant that Hashem was upholding with them here and now, they were to remember what Hashem did with His mighty arm in bringing them out of bondage and slavery, and leading them through the Wilderness, and Hashem was about to lead them into the Promised Land – the same land that Hashem promised to Abraham as an inheritance.

Again, the key here is remembrance and reflection, reciprocation and renewal. We cannot forget our past if we are to move forward. Our pasts are what define us – whether for good or for bad. Our pasts can never be ignored, they are always with us. And it is in remembrance and reflection of our pasts that aid us in plotting our futures – again, whether for good or bad.

For the Nation of Israel, it was the covenant from the past, in the days of Abraham their forefather, that defined their path forward. As revealed through their travails in Egypt as well as throughout the Wilderness, the path was anything but straightforward and direct. Nevertheless, it was the leadership and advocacy of Moses that was critical in bringing them back on the right path every single time. However, the people were about to enter the Land without Moses. Moreover, once they had conquered the Land and started dwelling in the Land, their heavy dependence on Hashem as they were accustomed to in the Wilderness was likely to wane, as they established the nation in the Land and grew communities, fostered livelihoods and developed the Land, built up cities, and prospered as a nation.

As such, Moses cautioned in Deuteronomy 29:17-18 against those who may choose to become lax: “Perhaps there is among you a root producing gall and wormwood. And it will be that when he hears the words of this oath, he will bless himself in his heart, saying, ‘I will have peace, though I go as my heart sees fit.’”

Gall and wormwood were bitter or even deadly herbs, and represent bad and wicked deeds that leave a bitter taste in the mouth. At first, such a person is a root and not yet an actual growth of gall and wormwood. Drops of rebellion away from the Torah are sown in such a person’s heart with no action towards sin having yet been taken. But the more a person allows the gall and wormwood to spread in their heart so that they become desensitized just like becoming accustomed to the bitter tang in the mouth, it eventually like a flood consumes the thoughts and ultimately the actions of the person. This is the way sin operates. All it takes is a foothold, and if we are not cautious and focused on Hashem, that foothold could become a stronghold in our lives.

Later, Moses goes on to explain what would happen should such a state of the heart (filled with gall and wormwood) spread to the nation. The result would be that other nations would ask what happened, and be answered with (Deuteronomy 29:24): “Because they forsook the covenant of Hashem, the God of their forefathers that He sealed with them when He took them out of the land of Egypt.”

Moses continues (Deuteronomy 29:26-27): “So God’s anger flared against that Land, to bring upon it the entire curse that is written in this Book; and Hashem removed them from upon their soil, with anger, with wrath, and with great fury, and He cast them to another land, as this very day!”

Although the covenant forged with Abraham was their ticket to entering the Land of Promise, their remaining in the Land depended on their eyes and hearts remaining fixed on the covenant and on the Torah.

Then, Moses’ tone changes. In Deuteronomy 30:1-3, he adds: “It will be that when all these things come upon you – the blessing and the curse that I have presented before you – then you will take it to your heart among all the nations where Hashem, your God, has dispersed you; and you will return unto Hashem, your God, and listen to His voice, according to everything that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul. Then Hashem, your God, will return your captivity and have mercy upon you, and He will gather you in from all the peoples to where Hashem, your God, has scattered you.”

Even though Hashem would evict them out of the Land and into exile amongst other nations because of escalated sins, He would never, ever forget the covenant that was forged with Abraham, and Hashem would bring them back to the good Land.

All they need to do is turn back to Hashem, to return to that place of remembrance and reflection, reciprocation and renewal of the eternal covenant with their Heavenly Father. The word for “turning back” to Hashem is “teshuvah”, which is “repentance”. Repentance literally involves “turning back” to Hashem. If you are walking along a path away from the Light and towards darkness, all you need to do is turn your head to gaze at the Light, then turn your entire body and “turn back” towards the Light.

Moses adds again in Deuteronomy 30:6: “Hashem, your God, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, to love Hashem, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”

Circumcision of the heart represents true repentance. What do I mean by that? Repentance is not just the mere words spoken from our mouths, but also involves the heart – there must be true and pure intention behind the words spoken with the mouth. In other words, true repentance requires that the heart and the mouth are in full agreement. I heard a great analogy recently. Imagine you bought a $5 lottery ticket with the chance to win $1 million. Someone comes to you offering to buy that ticket for $1,000. You agree, and now you are in the money by $995. Lo and behold, the person you sold the ticket to wins the $1 million lottery! Now, how would you feel? Wouldn’t you beat yourself up saying: “Why did I sell that ticket??”… “I could have been a millionaire!” You’d feel such profound regret! That is how one should feel when in a state of repentance.

Moreover, repentance is not true repentance unless the words of repentance uttered by the mouth truly reflect the desire to circumcise the heart. What does that mean? It is the true and sincere desire to remove the barrier of sin and wickedness that encapsulates the heart of the person doing repentance. Think back to the gall and wormwood, the bitter and deadly herbs that a person can become desensitized to over prolonged consumption – similarly prolonged allowance of thoughts of sin over time builds a coating over the heart until that person becomes desensitized to the sin in their life.

Hence the purpose for the renewing of the covenant there on the plain of Moab on the eve of entering the Promised Land. Let me reiterate: This is all about remembrance and reflection, reciprocation and renewal. This is not something that should be done every 40 years, let alone 400 years. This is an everyday thing. Hence, the present tense use of the words “nitzavim” in the opening verse of the parashah. We all have to be reminded that we are standing before Hashem every single day, and we need to remember and reflect our past – the path on which we have traversed up to this day, before reciprocating and renewing our commitment to Hashem.

In Jeremiah 31:30-33, the prophet Jeremiah said: “’Behold, days are coming – the word of Hashem – when I will seal a new covenant with the House of Israel and with the House of Judah: Not like the covenant that I sealed with their forefathers on the day that I took hold of their hand to take them out of the land of Egypt, for they abrogated My covenant, although I became their Master – the word of Hashem. For this is the covenant that I shall seal with the House of Israel after those days – the word of Hashem – I will place My Torah within them and I will write it onto their heart; I will be a God for them and they will be a people for Me.”

This “new covenant” wasn’t in any way the creation of a new covenant in the sense of the word “new”, but rather a renewing of the original covenant in a new way. This was accomplished through our Master Yeshua, the Messiah and the great sacrifice that he made by selflessly offering himself up on behalf of the nation of Israel and ultimately the entire world.

As it says in Hebrews 9:15: “For this reason, he [Messiah] is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance – now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”

The original covenant was forged with the offering and cutting in half of 3 heifers, 3 goats and 3 rams (and whole offering of the two types of birds) which served as a model for the future sacrificial system performed in the Tabernacle and Temple, and served as the means for purifying unintentional sins.

If we go back 2 verses to Hebrews 9:13, we see the significance and power of such a selfless act of sacrifice provided by Yeshua: “For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the ashes of the heifer sprinkled on the impure person sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more the blood of Messiah who brought near his essence to God through an everlasting spirit and without blemish, he will purify your hearts from the works of death, to serve the living God.”

It is through his act of self-sacrifice that Yeshua, who lived a sinless life and only did the will of his Heavenly Father, became the perfect model and conduit of redemption for all sinners throughout all of mankind. It was this great act that became the renewal of the original covenant through Abraham, extending and broadcasting the Name of Hashem to the far reaches of the world to this day.

We are all sinners, every one of us. There is not one amongst us that has not committed a sin. We need to recognize that sin is a common part of this world. It was revealed by Adam, and grew from a foothold into a stronghold through the history of mankind, and here we are today, faced by sin which seems to be on steroids, out of control and inescapable in our everyday lives.

Remember, it is all about remembrance and reflection, reciprocation and renewal. May we fix our eyes on Hashem’s covenant that was forged with Abraham, the very same one that the entire world has access to through Yeshua. May we fix our eyes on Yeshua and replicate him in our lives, for he only served to replicate his Heavenly Father, and by replicating him we replicate Hashem.

Remember, true repentance is an act of both the heart and the mouth. Repentance is rarely a one-time occurrence but most likely is done countless times throughout a lifetime. Never give up! Remember, it is first about the acknowledgement of the sin, and the recognition of the sinful covering over our hearts that has to be removed, that has to be circumcised. Sometimes because of our desensitization to the gall and wormwood of sin, we allow that covering over our hearts to thicken so heavily.

Remember that the power of repentance is so much more powerful than the thickness of that covering, if only we mean it with our hearts and speak it with our mouths by fixing our eyes on the life of Yeshua. Don’t allow sin to have even a hairsbreadth of space in your life.

Remember, the act of “nitzavim”, of “standing” is in the present tense and is in an elevated state. Make this an everyday actstand, guard and renew the covenant every day with the intention of elevating closer to Hashem. As Moses spoke in Deuteronomy 30:19-20: “I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring – to love Hashem, your God, to listen to His voice and to cleave to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days.”


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