Weekly Reading Insights: Nitzavim

Overview of the Torah Reading

To be read on Shabbat Nitzavim, 27 Elul 5781/Sep.4, 2021

Torah: Deut. 29:9-30:20
Haftorah: Isaiah 61 (7th of the Seven Haftorahs of Consolation)
Pirkei Avot:  Chapter 5,6

Nitzavim is the 8th Reading out of 11 in Deuteronomy and it contains 2575 letters, in 657 words, in 40 verses

Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20) opens with G-d making a covenant with the Jews, establishing them as His nation. He tells them that if they stray from the Torah, evil will befall them, but that when they return they will be rewarded with blessings, and will be returned to their land. G-d sets before them the choice between good and evil, but warns them to stay away from evil.

An Essay from
Rabbi Shaul Yosef Leiter, Director of Ascent

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There is an interesting custom in Jewish tradition that repeats itself before Rosh Hashana and Shavuot. In both instances, weeks before the holiday, we read sections from the Torah that contain harsh warnings and admonishments. Before Shavuot we read from Bechukotai and before Rosh Hashana we read from Ki Tavo. Similarly, in both situations, we read at least one additional portion before the actual holiday to make a break. In the case of Shavuot we read Bamidbar (sometimes Naso), and before Rosh Hashana we read Netzavim - sometimes together with Vayelech.

The reason: Since the admonishments, if they would happen, are not meant as, G-d forbid, punishments, but rather as purification and cleansing of the "vessels". Just like in the physical world where you clean a vessel before you put something important into it, so also in the spiritual world. In simple terms, each year before the revelations of the Giving of the Torah (in the Spring) and Rosh Hashana (in the Fall), when a completely new energy enters the world, it is imperative that we first clean and purify the vessel. This means negating any negative influences, which is accomplished by the reading of the harsh warnings. In addition, we need to make positive preparation for receiving the revelations these holidays bring. The question is: Why specifically the portions of Netzavim and Bamidbar?

The Talmud teaches that, "The Holy One, Blessed Be He, did not find a better vessel to hold Israel's blessings than Shalom (peace). " (End of tractate Uktzin). As we say every day in our prayers at the end of the Amidah, "Bless us, our Father, all of us as one". This unity and the peace that it creates brings (the next words in the blessing) "The light of Your countenance". Both portions Netzavim and Bamidbar teach about unity and peace.

Netzavim begins with the words, "You are all standing today (from the heads of the tribes to the water carriers) together". Similarly, Bamidbar speaks about counting the Jewish people. The most important is not more than number one, and the least important not less than one. All are equal.

Since Shavuot and Rosh Hashana are different, so are the preparations different, whether in purifying the vessel or in the unity. This can be seen in the number of admonishments in Bechukotai (before Shavuot) as opposed to the number in Ki Tavo (before Rosh Hashana). In Bechukotai there are 49 while in Ki Tavo there are 98, exactly double, to teach us that the revelations of Rosh Hashana are much greater than those of Shavuot and therefore need more purification. Why?

In general, from a mystical perspective, the revelations of Shavuot are from above to below. We receive the Torah from on High. Rosh Hashana, on the other hand, are days of judgment, when we repair damage created by our negative behavior, therefore the effort originates from below and goes above. When the effort begins below, the revelation that comes from Above is much greater and the preparation also has to be much greater. Similarly, in Bamidbar, the idea of counting makes everyone equal, no matter which tribe they came from. But in Netzavim, even differences of social standing and occupation are levelled out. The nation stood united.

The preparation is also connected to the type of revelation. On Shavuot, when we received the Torah from Above we became in a sense, like converts. We were transformed, but with only minimal effort of our own. Rosh Hashana, on the other hand, is all about the individual effort of teshuvah - returning to G-d, repentance, personal transformation - from below to Above. Therefore, the necessity of unity of the Jewish people is much greater. On Rosh Hashana we realize that even though there are heads and there are feet, the feet cannot manage without the head and vice versa. We are one and only through this oneness can we successfully fulfill the mission of Rosh Hashana - making G-d the one King over us all.

To reach our goal and to prepare for the required level of peace and unity will call for the investment of much effort, both by the soul and the body. The soul - by meditating and arriving at the concept of acceptance and understanding of each and every Jew. We must truly experience the unity. And the body - that it should not be an obstacle. This is accomplished by being in a state of true simcha (happiness).

We have another dimension of preparation: From this Shabbat, there are nine days until Rosh Hashana - eight days of Selichot prayers - the last seven days of the month of Elul, the month of compassion, when the King is in the field. During the holidays, the King is in His palace and only the special few are admitted. During Elul, anyone who makes even a small effort can see the King. There are no obstacles!

May we all make the right purifications and preparations that we may merit to be signed and sealed in the book of life for a good and sweet new year.
(Adapted from Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. Likkutei Sichot"Collected Talks": An Anthology of Talks. Kehot Publication Society. Parshat Netzavim. 1954)

Once, Rabbi Yechiel Michel of Zlotshov [i] felt that his prayers were blocked; not allowed to ascend Heavenward. This bothered him very much and the discomfort caused him to doze.
His father, Rabbi Yitzchak of Dorhovitz revealed himself and told his son that the reason his prayers were being held back was because a Jew had come to him and complained about the difficulties that were overwhelming him. Rabbi Michel asked the man about his life and the person admitted that he had committed terrible sins. Rabbi Michel told him, "If that is the case, why are you complaining? Repent and G-d will take away all your problems."
His father told him, "Your words caused a negative decree from above on YOU. You did not have to justify G-d's judgement on that person. You should have judged him favorably. Justifying G-d's judgement is good when you justify G-d's judgement on yourself. But when it comes to others, there is no requirement for you to be a defender for what G-d does! Your job is to arouse mercy on a Jewish soul."

Shabbat Shalom, Shaul.
With blessings for a good and sweet new year.

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For last year's essay by Rabbi Leiter on this week's Reading, see the archive.


Specifically, for an overview of the recommended articles in the columns:
Holy Zohar, Holy Ari, Mystic Classics, Chasidic Masters, Contemporary Kabbalists, and more,
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one sample:

Mystical Classics

The Holy Heart of Times to Come

From Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman's commentary on the Torah

"And the Eternal, your G-d, will circumcise your heart."

Lust and desire are the "foreskin" of the heart; circumcision of the heart means that it will not covet or desire evil. In the days of the Mashiach, the choice of genuine good will be natural; the heart will not desire what is improper. Man will return at that time to what he was before the sin of Adam when there were no conflicting desires in his will.

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