Parshat Nitzavim, one of the final Torah portions in the book of Deuteronomy, contains some of the most potent theological and ethical messages in the Jewish tradition. This article aims to explore the complex narrative presented in this portion, particularly in the context of the covenant between God and the Israelites and its relevance for future generations. We will also explore how the portion warns against idolatry and foreign influences, providing a framework for an authentic Jewish life.
The Covenant: For Present and Future Generations
The portion kicks off with a powerful assertion in Deuteronomy 29:9-13:
“You stand this day, all of you, before your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, and every householder in Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from the woodchopper to the water drawer—so that you may pass over into the covenant of the Lord your God […] and not only is it with you that I make this covenant and this oath […] but with that which is not standing with us today in front of the Lord your God.”
These verses express the idea that the covenant with God is not only for the generation standing before Moses but also for all future generations. This interpretation is widely accepted among traditional commentators.
The Tangent: Warnings and Consequences
After laying out the covenant, the text seemingly goes on a tangent. It issues a caution rooted in the past experiences of the Israelites:
“כִּי־אַתֶּ֣ם יְדַעְתֶּ֔ם” (Ki atem yedatem)—”because you know that you dwelt in the land of Egypt, and you saw the detestable things.”
The Ramban (Moses ben Nachman) suggests that this “tangent” warns against potential idolatry due to foreign influences experienced in Egypt or along their journey. This warning echoes throughout the next verses, culminating in catastrophic consequences for failing to heed God’s laws.
The Positive Turn: Proximity and Simplicity
Verse 11 of Chapter 30 takes an optimistic turn, emphasizing the practicality of the Torah:
“כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת […] לֹא־נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ” (Ki hamitzvah hazot […] lo-niflet hi mimcha)
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you.”
It’s as if the text reaffirms that living a Jewish life is not a complex affair but one within reach for anyone sincerely committed to it.
Reading the Text Cohesively
The seeming digression between the covenantal ceremony and the warning might be less than a digression than a multi-layered message. One could argue that this is a “parenthetical” section that shows, for those who need to hear it, that maintaining a covenantal relationship with God requires vigilance against immoral and idolatrous influences that might complicate the relationship. And these verses are only relevant to those who allow themselves to be influenced and pulled into foreign immoral and idolatrous paths.
A Reflection on Authentic Judaism
The text emphasizes that authentic Judaism is inherently practical and accessible: “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you.” When, however, one finds Judaism burdensome or challenging, it might be because of unnecessary complications derived, knowing or unknowingly, from foreign immoral and idolatrous elements inadvertently crept in and, therefore, detract from its original simplicity and practicality.
The covenant is meant to be a straightforward, attainable source of life and goodness applicable to all generations. It is a constant opportunity to choose a path that leads to a meaningful life. When the tradition feels cumbersome to the faithful, it may be a sign that foreign elements have crept in, complicating what should be a simple yet profound covenantal relationship with God.
This may be why the text adds the parenthetical versus talking about foreign influences corrupting and leading people astray to the degree that they cannot keep the covenant.
Parshat Nitzavim offers an important message: The covenant with God is eternal, inclusive, and most importantly, practical and within reach of everyone. While it warns us of the consequences of straying from the path, it also reassures us that the way back is neither distant nor unreachable. It’s a beautiful testament to an inclusive, straightforward, and enduring relationship with God—a relationship not in heaven or across the sea but very close to us, in our mouths and hearts, ready to be lived out in our daily lives.