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Nitzavim | From Devastation to Repentance

Rav Itiel Gold


I. The Conclusion of the Curses

Parashat Ki Tavo described a covenant that was about to be made between God and the people of Israel: the covenant of the land, which includes the blessings and curses that are described there in detail. Thus, in essence, the relationship between God and the people of Israel was regulated before the people entered the land (Chapter 28). This is the second covenant God made with Israel; the first was at Mount Sinai (28:69).

Now, in Parashat Nitzavim, we move on to the actual making of the covenant:

You are standing this day all of you before the Lord… that you should enter into the covenant of the Lord your God and into His oath, which the Lord your God makes with you this day. (Devarim 29:9-11)

Reading the list of blessings and curses in Ki Tavo is liable to leave one with the impression that we are dealing with a very simple and polar system: following a positive path will lead to blessings and prosperity in the land, whereas going in the negative direction will lead to curses, including exile and destruction. The passage ends on a very pessimistic note:

And the Lord shall bring you back into Egypt in ships, by the way about which I said to you: You shall see it no more again; and there you shall sell yourselves to your enemies as bondmen and as bondwomen, but no man shall buy you. (28:68)

This is perhaps the most shocking verse in the Torah. It describes going backward, to the place where it all started – the bondage in Egypt. Jewish history resets and returns to the starting point![1] This verse indicates that it is possible, at least theoretically, that following a negative path could lead to the eradication of Israel's existence.

Thus, the picture that emerges from the passage of the blessings and curses is quite frightening. A dichotomous and final description – either prosperity or destruction.

In our parasha, however, Moshe introduces a new element into the picture. There doesn't have to be such a bleak ending to the story, even if Israel follows the negative path. Salvation will arrive in the form of a process of repentance that can lead to the people’s redemption from destruction:

And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you shall bethink yourself among all the nations, where the Lord your God has driven you, and shall return to the Lord your God, and hearken to His voice according to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul; that then the Lord your God will turn your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from all the peoples, where the Lord your God has scattered you. (30:1-3)

This is a beautiful and exciting passage. It shows how the people of Israel can recover from their troubles when they return to God. In response, God will also return to them, have mercy on them, and gather them in from their exile among the nations.

However, one must ask: Why does Moshe pause, and only present the option of repair two chapters after the passage spelling out the blessings and curses? It seems it would make more sense to include it as part of that passage. Why end Parashat Ki Tavo on such a somber note, and wait until Parashat Nitzavim to reveal that there is hope?

The question intensifies if we compare this to the end of the passage of curses in the book of Vayikra, which constitutes part of the covenant made at Sinai.[2] Unlike the curses in the book of Devarim, there the passage itself ends on an optimistic note:

And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them; for I am the Lord their God. But I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the Lord. (Vayikra 26:44-45) 

There, the curses end with hope, with a promise that God will not forget His people in exile and will not break His covenant with the Patriarchs.

Why not end the passage containing the curses in Parashat Ki Tavo on a similarly hopeful note? Why separate the passage dealing with repentance and repair from the list of curses?

II. The Curses – The Book of Vayikra in Contrast to the Book of Devarim

A comparison between the curses in the covenant made at Sinai in Vayikra and the curses in the covenant of the land in Devarim shows that there are also other differences between them. In general, the curses in Devarim are much harsher than the curses in Vayikra.

First, the passage in Devarim is much longer – 53 verses in Devarim as opposed to only 31 verses in the passage in Vayikra. Clearly, we are dealing with a significant increase in the curses. For example, in Vayikra, two diseases are mentioned – consumption and fever (Vayikra 26:16). In contrast, the passage in Devarim mentions several sicknesses – consumption, fever, inflammation, and fiery heat (28:22); more serious diseases – the boils of Egypt, hemorrhoids, scab, and the itch, "from which you cannot be healed" (28:27); madness, blindness, and astonishment of heart (28:28); and a debilitating boil affecting the legs (28:35).

The descriptions of suffering are also much more severe and detailed in the book of Devarim. For example, in the book of Vayikra, we find the terrible curse of resorting to eating the flesh of one's children, but it is brief: "And you shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall you eat" (Vayikra 26:29). In contrast, the description in Devarim is much more detailed and horrific:

The tender and delicate woman among you, who would not adventure to set the sole of her foot upon the ground for delicateness and tenderness, her eye shall be evil against the husband of her bosom, and against her son, and against her daughter; and against her afterbirth that comes out from between her feet, and against her children whom she shall bear; for she shall eat them for want of all things secretly; in the siege and in the straits to which your enemy shall reduce you in your gates. (28:56-57) 

This description is much more dramatic and shocking. A tender and delicate woman who never set foot on the ground will acquire an evil eye and eat her children secretly, so as not to leave anything over for her husband or the rest of her children. Two other verses are dedicated to describing similar behavior on the part of the father (28:54-55). Without a doubt, there is a clear goal to worsen the atmosphere of the curses in Devarim and give them a much more somber touch.

Another difference is the mention of Egypt in the curses. In Devarim, Egypt is mentioned several times. First, in the descriptions of the diseases: "the boil of Egypt" (28:27), and also "the diseases of Egypt, which you were in dread of" (28:60).  Second, in the concluding verse that was mentioned above, regarding the harsh curse of returning to bondage in Egypt (28:68). In contrast, in Vayikra there is no mention of curses connected to Egypt.

Aside from the severity of the curses in Devarim in comparison to Vayikra, the way the curses are presented is also different. In Vayikra, the curses are presented in a graduated manner; they get worse and worse, depending on the severity of the transgressions, in five stages. After each stage, a phrase is used to explain the need for the more severe punishment: "And if you will not yet for these things hearken to Me, then I will chastise you seven times more for your sins" (Vayikra 26:18). In the last stage, the most severe punishment appears – exile (Vayikra 26:32-39).

In contrast, in Devarim, there is no gradation in the curses. The passage opens with a description of the cause of the curses, the non-observance of the commandments:

But it shall come to pass, if you will not hearken to the voice of the Lord your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes which I command you this day; that all these curses shall come upon you, and overtake you. (28:15)

After that, all the curses appear in one continuum, as a single set of terrible troubles that will befall the people of Israel. The picture presented here is that if the people of Israel veer from the proper path, the result will be that all the possible curses will appear together. As noted above, this presentation is deliberately polarized and extreme. The picture presented at the Sinai covenant, in the book of Vayikra, seems much more reasonable – a gradual worsening of punishments, corresponding to the severity of the sins.

To summarize the differences we saw between the passages: in the book of Devarim, there are curses connected to Egypt; they are longer, more detailed, and more difficult; and the curses appear all at once, without gradation.

We must now try to understand why the passage containing the curses in the book of Devarim was formulated in such a harsh and severe way.

III. The Goal of the Curses

One phrase in the passage containing the curses in the book of Vayikra may help us understand the difference between the passages. The curses are described there several times as "yisurim," "chastenings," that God brings upon Israel,[3] whereas in Devarim, this expression is not found. When this term is used in Scripture, it refers to an educational action taken by an authority towards a person who is subordinate to him and whom he is trying to educate. Thus, for example, in Parashat Eikev, we find God's chastening of Israel in the wilderness compared to an educational act performed by a father for his son:

And you shall consider in your heart, that, as a man chastens his son, so the Lord your God chastens you. (8:5)

The expression appears with this meaning in other places in the Torah as well.[4] In his commentary to the book of Mishlei, the Malbim explains that the term "yisurim" grew out of the concrete action of "le-esor," "to tie." This expression took on the metaphorical meaning of tying up or stopping a sinning man and returning him to the straight path. You can tie a person up ("le-esor") in a concrete manner, or else you can chastise him ("le-yaser") and thus tie him to the desired path.[5]

It seems that this is precisely the purpose of the curses in Vayikra – an act of educational punishment, intended to return the people of Israel to the straight path. Therefore, the curses are presented in a gradual manner – the people should be chastised to a degree that will bring them to stop sinning. If they continue to sin, the punishments should be increased accordingly, and so on. It is all for the sake of returning Israel to the proper path. If they do not improve their actions, the punishments will pursue them until the goal is reached, as we read toward the end of the passage:

I also will walk contrary to them, and bring them into the land of their enemies; if then perchance their uncircumcised heart be humbled, and they then be paid the punishment of their iniquity. (Vayikra 26:41) 

The goal is to subdue their “uncircumcised” hearts by force, through chastisements.[6] The assumption is that eventually, after much suffering, this goal will be achieved. Along with the memory of the Patriarchs, this will lead to a turn for the better (Vayikra 26:42).

The purpose of the curses in the book of Devarim is altogether different. No mention is made of an educational act or of an attempt to subdue the hearts of Israel. The curses are presented as a result of the people’s choice to follow the negative path. The passage concerning the blessings and curses in the book of Devarim is more similar to an agreement between two equal parties – if Israel chooses one way, they will receive the good, and if they choose the other way, they will receive the bad. The relationship here is not between the educator (God) and the educated (Israel), but between two parties who agree on mutual obligations. The people of Israel undertake to observe the commandments, in return for which God obligates Himself to the blessings. If Israel breaks the agreement, God will respond in kind by bringing the curses upon them.

The people of Israel can choose which path to follow, with the knowledge that the two paths lead to different places. No educational attempt is made here to influence them with force to choose one of the paths. This is given clear expression in Moshe's summation of the covenant in our parasha:

See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil… I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore, choose life, that you may live, you and your seed. (30:15-19)

This demonstrates Moshe's mature attitude toward the people of Israel. There is no longer any attempt to educate them by force, as we saw in the book of Vayikra. Instead, he provides a sober presentation of the issues before them, as mature people. It is no longer possible to force them to choose the path of the Torah. It is only possible to present the two tracks – the good and the bad, life and death.  From now on, it will fall upon Israel to decide which path to choose.

This difference between the passages in Vayikra and Devarim is similar to the difference between educating a young child and dealing with an adult. When educating a young child, whose mind has not yet developed, actions of punishment and coercion must sometimes be used, in order to direct him to the right path. However, when the child grows up, there is no longer room or meaning for such processes, which leave a person small and weak.

God appeals to the people of Israel as adults and wants to guide them. The only way to do this is to clearly spell out for them the different paths and their results. Therefore, the curses in Devarim are formulated in a much more tangible and detailed way. It is intended to explain as much as possible the price to be paid for the negative path. There is no gradation in the curses, because there is no gradual educational process of coercion. There is only a description here of the path of evil; if they follow it, they will bring upon themselves all the possible curses. Now the choice belongs to Israel.

Israel's mature position in the covenant also finds expression in the fact that Moshe can present them with a bitter and painful truth – that following the negative path is liable to lead the people of Israel to the point of returning to Egypt and resetting Jewish history. This is a free and mature agreement, which cannot be forced and which requires full information.

In contrast, in the Sinai covenant, Egypt is not mentioned at all. That covenant was made just after the exodus from Egypt. It would have been out of the question to remind the people about Egypt, when the trauma of slavery was still fresh and resounding in their hearts. In Devarim, however, God does not limit himself, as it were; He can return Israel to Egypt in accordance with their actions.

Now we can also understand the difference in tone between the conclusions of the two covenants. The Sinai covenant is an educational covenant, in which God undertakes to bring Israel to the straight path and utilizes the curses to guide them. Therefore, they are gradual and limited. Naturally, an educator limits his power in front of his student and does not use all possible force against him. Exercising excessive force would lead to the student's collapse, rather than to his education. God, too, limits the curses to the submission of the hearts of Israel. He also sets limits on them by invoking the merits of the Patriarchs, which bring Him to remember Israel and show them mercy. God is likened here to a teacher of young children, who loves the fathers of his students. He can get angry and punish them in order to educate, but at a certain moment, he remembers their beloved fathers and feels sorry for them.

However, in the covenant of the land in the book of Devarim, the story is different. There is a mutual agreement between two mature parties, and so it is possible to "go for broke." If Israel chooses the good path, they will receive blessing and life. If they follow the evil path, there is no limit to the curses that can be brought upon them, including being returned to Egypt. There is no happy ending, because we are not dealing with a children's story. This is a mature agreement, with all that implies. Therefore, the curse is described until the bitter end, with no optimistic ending.

IV. Responsibility and Repentance

The covenant regarding the land in the book of Devarim can seem harsh and gloomy. However, it has a higher level, as it treats Israel in a mature way and allows them a choice. In doing so, it hands them great responsibility – they are the ones who will choose their fate, for good or bad. This position of responsibility and choice is the basis of the passage dealing with repentance in our parasha.

As mentioned, repentance cannot appear as part of the covenant, which presents the choice between the two sides in a clear, polar manner. But it appears later and conveys the high level that can be reached precisely because of the mature covenant. If we return to the covenant in Sinai, we see that there, the optimistic ending does not include repentance – only submission of the heart by way of force and remembering the merits of the Patriarchs. This is the maximal positive outcome, in a covenant based on education and coercion.

However, in the mutual covenant in the book of Devarim, it is possible to return to the proper path through repentance. The process of repentance involves taking responsibility for one's evil deeds and actively choosing to return to God:

And you shall return to the Lord your God, and hearken to His voice according to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul. (30:1)

This process can only come from the mature and responsible place where the people of Israel find themselves in the covenant. They may, indeed, choose the path of death. But the very fact of having a choice allows them to return from this path to the path of life. If in the covenant of Sinai, mention was made of Israel's "uncircumcised heart," here we can reach purification of the heart through the cutting of their foreskin:

And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, that you may live. (30:6)

Like the depth of the fall is the elevation of the revival. The fall in the curses here reaches the extreme, but it symbolizes a mature and responsible relationship with Israel. It is precisely this relationship that allows for true repentance, which includes assuming responsibility and choosing to return to God. The covenant of the land in the book of Devarim is part of the overall tendency of the book, which we have seen in previous shiurim: The nation of Israel has matured and is now able to meet higher expectations, in preparation for entering the land. It is possible to trust them and give them the land, despite the serious concerns that they will not follow the straight path. These fears can indeed come true and lead to terrible curses, but the very maturity and responsibility can also enable the path of repentance, which gives rise to growth precisely from the curses.

(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] The situation will be even worse. In Egypt they were at least slaves, whereas here it is stated that nobody will even want to buy them.

[2] As is described at the end of the passage: "These are the statues and ordinances and laws, which the Lord made between Him and the children of Israel in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moshe" (Vayikra 26:46).  

[3] "And if you will not yet for these things hearken to Me, then I will chastise you seven more times for your sins…  And if in spite of these things you will not be corrected to Me… And I also will chastise you" (Vayikra 26:18,23,28).   

[4] Similarly in the passage concerning a rebellious son: "and though they chasten him, will not hearken to them" (21:18). In the passage concerning a slanderer, the elders of the city appear as the authority figures and educate the husband who slandered his wife: "And the elders of that city shall take the man and chastise him" (22:18). 

[5] Peirush ha-Milot 1:2.  

[6] The curses in the book of Vayikra also have another purpose – that the land should be abandoned and thus it will complete the sabbatical years that had not been observed (Vayikra 26:43).

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