Parashat Nitsavim - September 8th

נצבים Nitsavim

As we approach the end to the yearly cycle of Torah readings some Torah portions are combined.  This week is an example of this as both Nitsavim and Vayelech Torah Portions are combined.

Deuteronomy 29.9—30.20

Towards the end of the book of Deuteronomy, in a kind of summary of the entire Torah, Moses explains to the nation of Israel the meaning of the covenant that was made at Mount Sinai. It is an overview full of hope for the future, as it looks forward to the new covenant. In chapter 28 he had described at length the blessing and the curse. This is largely a depressing description, because it testifies to the fact that God demands of us complete and uncompromising holiness. In fact, he says that even if we manage to keep all of the Torah, but do not do it joyfully and with our whole heart, our deeds are of no value and we can expect to be punished as the worst of sinners (see Deut 28.27).

As we read the portion “Nitsavim,” the picture broadens, and when we get to chapter 30, there is revealed before us God’s grace in all its glory, precisely here right after God has explained in such great detail the curse that awaits the nation of Israel if they turn their backs on their covenant with the Lord.

No hope?

In Deut 29.28-29 God emphasizes several matters that are related to the Sinai covenant but which still look forward to the future.

1. “You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God.” (vs 10). No one can claim afterwards, “I didn’t know, I didn’t hear.” More than that, everyone is subject to the covenant, from the leaders down to those who fetch the water and cut the wood. The expression “stand in the presence of the Lord” emphasizes the fact that all are subject to God’s authority, and when we stand in his presence (note, in his presence, not just somewhere nearby), we are all equal, and differences between us in standing or authority are without meaning there.

2. God’s program does not end at Mount Sinai. The covenant is a way to “establish you this day as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you, and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (vs 12). In other words, the significance of the covenant made at Mount Sinai was more than just giving the Torah and demanding obedience. The Torah is a path leading to a final goal, which is “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31.33).

3. The covenant is for all of Israel, regardless of where they are or the time in history in which they live: “Nor is it with you only that I make this sworn covenant” (vs 14). As we said, there are no excuses. It is interesting to note that the scriptures return repeatedly to this point. We have a tendency to say, “I didn’t know,” but God says that this excuse will never help us at the moment of truth. The apostle Paul wrote, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Rom 1.18-20). On the day of judgment, no one will be able to say to God, “I never heard of you” or “no one ever preached the gospel to me.” The necessary information is already in the heart of every person, and if they do not believe and do not seek God, it is because of the evil of their heart.

4. God is holy. He warns the Israelites against following their own stubborn hearts. Because God is holy, he cannot tolerate sin, cannot permit it to go unpunished. More than that, God warns that when there are sinners in the congregation of believers, people whose hearts are full of bitterness, they will eventually contaminate the entire congregation. Sin can never be cleaned up or accepted as far as God is concerned. We must recognize this truth. God hates all sin, and sin brings the punishment of death (see Rom 6.23).

5. The lives of the people of God testify about him. The last part of chapter 29 provides the reasoning behind the threat that the nation will be punished if they do not keep God’s commandments. When people ask today why the Babylonian exile happened, or why Israel suffered the two thousand year exile, we can reply, “because we abandoned the covenant of the Lord made with our when he took them out of Egypt . . . and ‘the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book.’” (see Deut 29.23-27).

6. God’s program has a part that is open and a part that is hidden. The revelation of God continues and will become completely clear when Jesus returns. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us.” Why has God revealed them to us? “That we may do all the words of this Torah.” (vs 28).

At the point of transition between focusing on the Torah of Moses and focusing on the new covenant written about in chapter 30, God explains that the hearers must believe God both in what is clear and in what is beyond their understanding. We can know well what God has chosen to reveal to us, but we must believe his word even when it touches on details that he has chosen to hide from us. This, for example, is God’s message to the prophet Daniel (see Dan 12.9-10).

So these verses at the end of chapter 29 form the basis for what God is preparing to say. If the book of Deuteronomy ended here, we would feel despair. After a relatively short listing of the blessings and a very long, detailed listing of the curses in chapter 28, it seems that no one of us has any hope of being saved; not one of us can fulfill all of the Torah, so all of us can expect to be punished. Thankfully, however, there is also chapter 30.

There is hope!

The first verse of chapter 30 provides us with important historical information: “When all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you.” Where is the historical information? In chapter 28 God warned Israel that if they do not respond to his call to repent, he will ultimately kick them out of their land and will scatter them in every direction: “The Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other; and there you shall serve other gods, of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. And among these nations you shall find no ease, and there shall be no rest for the sole of your foot . . . “ (Deut 28.64-68).

So now we must ask if Israel chose life or death? Blessing or curse? Today we have no problem answering that question. We are familiar with the history and know well that those verses were literally fulfilled. The interesting thing is that God already says in 30.1-5 that he will one day bring Israel back from the lands where he had expelled his people. In other words, he actually says that he will have to carry out judgment on Israel because of their rebellion, but he will never deny his promises and his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The description of that salvation is a wonderful description of the new covenant from a slightly different perspective than what we are used to.

A new covenant – love!

“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15.13) This is a marvelous truth: Jesus’ love for us is the greatest love that exists. He loved us while we were still his enemies, when we were dead in our sins (Eph 2.1). Why? Because God is love! This is God’s most outstanding characteristic—he loves and desires to be loved. For this reason, his solution to the difficult problem of Israel’s unfaithfulness is love.

Here is God’s solution to the problem of Israel’s sin and generally all sin: “The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” (Deut 30.6). This verse strongly emphasizes God’s love and what results from it, our love for him.

The covenant of Moses, the same covenant that was received at Mount Sinai, emphasizes the holiness of God and the obligation of human beings to obey him. Here there is a different emphasis. No, we have absolutely not received some kind of exemption from obeying God’s commands. The primary difference is that now God works in our hearts so that we will be able to keep his command. Which command? We will turn to that subject presently.

The main point is that God, on his own initiative, circumcises our hearts. If the removal of the physical foreskin was a symbol of our physical belonging to Israel—and in fact did not say anything about our faith, because circumcision is done on eight day old children—then the removal of the uncircumcision of the heart speaks of spiritual belonging. When God circumcises our heart, he gives us the ability to love—to love him first of all and also to love our neighbor.

Jesus himself said that all of the Torah is included in two commandments: to love God and to love your neighbor. In light of what we have read in Deut 28 and 29, it is clear that this is not possible, because we are sinners, because “no one seeks for God, . . . no one does good, not even one, . . . the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom 3.11-18).

So how has the impossible become possible? It happens when God circumcises our hearts, when he demonstrates his full love toward us. And how does it happen? In the Messiah Jesus: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with the Messiah (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in the Messiah Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in the Messiah Jesus.” (Eph 2.4-7)

This is exactly what is described in Deut 30.6. Now, after God has circumcised our hearts, after the righteousness of God has been revealed without the Torah (Rom 3.21), after he exchanges the old Sinai covenant for a covenant that is engraved on our hearts (Jer 31.31-34), we are able to love God and obey him.

We do indeed have hope! It is never far from us, because God is always near. His salvation is offered to us on his initiative and freely. This is the great, meaningful difference between messianic faith and all other religions in the world. We cannot earn our salvation. We cannot do enough good deeds so that in payment God has to circumcise our hearts. No way! The exact opposite is true. God is the one who has circumcised our hearts, and as a result we love him. That is why it is written, “the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (Deut 30.14).

Everything has already been done for us. The good Torah that we received taught us that we cannot satisfy God with our works. God chose Israel and promised that he would never forsake us. Jesus the Messiah—God, who took on himself the form of a servant and became a man—came to the world to atone for our sins and satisfy God’s holiness. God the father raised Jesus from the dead. He circumcised our hearts so that we would be able to repent, to love him, and to obey his word.

God is near. We too “stand this day” in the presence of the God of Israel, called to obey his word, to love him and glorify his name. That is our great hope!

[Eitan Kashtan]




Haftarah: Isaiah 61.9—63.9

Isaiah 61.10: The midrash associates this verse with the Messiah in a way that speaks of his divinity. “’He has clothed me with the garments of salvation.’ There are seven garments which the Holy One, blessed be his name! has put on since the world began, or will put on before the hour when he will visit with his wrath the godless Edom. When he created the world he clothed himself in honor and glory; for it is said, ‘You are clothed with honor and glory’ (Psa 104.1). When he showed himself at the Red Sea he clothed himself in majesty; for it is said, ‘The Lord reigns; he is clothed with majesty’ (Psa 93.1). When he gave the law he clothed himself with might; for it is said, ‘the Lord is clothed with might, wherewith he hath girded himself’ (Psa 93.1). As often as he forgave Israel its sins he clothed himself in white; for it is said, ‘His garment was white as snow’ (Dan 7.9). When he punishes the nations of the world he puts on the garments of vengeance, as it is said, ‘He put on the garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as a cloak’ (Isa 59.17).

“He will put on the sixth robe when the Messiah is revealed. Then will he clothe himself in righteousness; for it is said, ‘For he put on righteousness as a breastplate, and an helmet of salvation on his head’ (Isa 59.17). He will put on the seventh robe when he punishes Edom. Then will he clothe himself in red; for it is said, ‘Why is your apparel red?’ (Isa 63.2). But the robes with which he will clothe the Messiah will shine from one end of the world to the other; for it is said, ‘As a bridegroom who is crowned with his turban, like a priest’ (Isa 59.10). And the sons of Israel will rejoice in his light, and will say, ‘Blessed be the hour when the Messiah was born; blessed the womb which bore him; blessed the eyes that were counted worthy to see him. For the opening of his lips is blessing and peace; his speech is rest to the soul; the thoughts of his heart confidence and joy; the speech of his lips pardon and forgiveness; his prayer like the sweet-smelling savor of a sacrifice; his supplications holiness and purity. O, how blessed is Israel for whom such a lot is reserved; for it is said, “How abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you”’ (Psa 31.19).” [Pesikta (ed. Buber), p. 149, col. 1; from B. Pick, Hebraica 4, 1 (1887), 49]



Shabbat Shalom!

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