As told in Deuteronomy 29:9–30:20, this is the story of the Torah reading Nitzavim:
Moses told the Israelites that all the people stood that day before God to enter into the covenant whereby God might establish Israel as God’s people and be their God, as God promised them and as God swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses made the covenant both with those who were standing there that day and with those who were not there that day. Moses reminded the Israelites that they had dwelt in the land of Egypt and had passed through various other nations and had seen the detestable idols of wood, stone, silver, and gold that those other nations kept. Moses speculated that perchance there were among the Israelites some whose hearts were even then turning away from God to go worship the gods of those nations, who might think themselves immune, thinking that they would be safe though they followed their own willful hearts. But God would never forgive them; rather God’s anger would rage against them until every curse recorded in the Torah would come down upon them and God had blotted out their names. And later generations and other nations would ask why God had done that to those people, and they would be told that it was because they forsook the covenant that God made with them and turned to other gods. So God grew incensed at that land and brought upon it all the curses recorded in the Torah, uprooted them from their soil in anger, and cast them into another land, as would still be the case. Concealed acts concerned God; but with overt acts, it was for the Israelites to apply all the provisions of the Torah.
After all these curses had befallen them, if they took them to heart in their exile, and they returned to God, and they heeded God’s commandments with all their hearts and souls, then God would restore their fortunes, take them back in love, and bring them together again from the ends of the world to the land that their fathers possessed, and God would make them more prosperous and numerous. Then God would open their hearts to love God with all their hearts and souls, in order that they might live. God would then inflict all those curses on the enemies who persecuted the Israelites, and would bless the Israelites with abounding prosperity, fertility, and productivity. For God would again delight in their wellbeing, as God had in that of their fathers, since they would be heeding God and keeping the commandments once they had returned to God with all their hearts and souls.
The law’s accessibility
Moses said that surely, this Instruction that he enjoined upon them was not too baffling, beyond reach, in the heavens, or beyond the sea; rather it was very close to them, in their mouths and hearts. Moses said that he set before them the choice between life and prosperity on the one hand and death and adversity on the other. Moses commanded them to love God, to walk in God’s ways, and to keep God’s commandments, that they might thrive and increase, and that God might bless them in the land. But if their hearts turned away and they gave no heed, and were lured into the worship of other gods, Moses warned that they would certainly perish and not long endure in the land. Moses called heaven and earth to witness that he had put before the Israelites life and death, blessing and curse. He exhorted them to choose life by loving God, heeding the commandments, and holding fast to God, so that they might have life and long endure on the land that God swore to their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Here are a few of the questions that the Rabbis raised about this Torah reading:
- What are the rewards of Torah study?
- Why does the Torah reading begin in the middle of a speech?
- Who were “the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water”?
- What does Deuteronomy 29:13 mean by “not with you alone do I make this covenant”?
- What does Deuteronomy 29:18–19 mean by “that he bless himself in his heart, saying: ‘I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart’”?
- What is the import of the words “this day” in the report of Deuteronomy 29:27 that God “cast them into another land, as it is this day”?
- Why do dots appear over the words “to us and to our children forever” in Deuteronomy 29:28?
- What does Deuteronomy 29:28 mean by “The secret things belong to the Lord our God . . . forever”?
- What are the effects of repentance?
- What does Deuteronomy 30:3 mean by “the Lord your God will return [with] your captivity”?
- What does Deuteronomy 30:6 mean by “God will circumcise your heart”?
- What does Deuteronomy 30:12 mean by “It is not in heaven”?
- What does Deuteronomy 30:14 teach by saying, “the word is very near to you, in your mouth”?
- What do the words “choose life” in Deuteronomy 30:19 teach us about the strictness of God’s punishment?
- Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 19b.
- Joshua 9:27. Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 79a.
- Tosefta Sotah 7:5. Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 146a, Nedarim 25a, Shevuot 29a, 39a.
- Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 76b.
- Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:3. Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 110b.
- Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 43b. Numbers Rabbah 3:13.
- Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 43b.
- Numbers Rabbah 7:10. Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times.
- Babylonian Talmud Megillah 29a.
- Onkelos. Kli Yakar. Nachmanides.
- Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 59b, Eruvin 54b–55a. Deuteronomy Rabbah 8:6.
- Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 54a.
- Deuteronomy Rabbah 4:3.