This week’s Parasha begins with the Pasuk “Atem Nitzavim HaYom Kulechem Lifnei Hashem Elokeichem,” “You are all standing today before Hashem, your God” (Devarim 29:9). The Kehilat Rabbah notes that this Pasuk should be at the beginning of Sefer Devarim, since it is seemingly the beginning of Moshe’s speech. Why is this Pasuk placed here, near the end of the Sefer? The majority of Meforshim agree that Semichut Parashiot, the juxtaposition of Torah portions, can answer this question. Moshe just told Bnei Yisrael the Tochachah, a list of horrible punishments that would befall anyone who would abandon God. Upon seeing the petrified looks upon their faces, Moshe comforted them by telling them this Pasuk. This widespread explanation creates another quandary: How is this Pasuk comforting to Bnei Yisrael? Additionally, Moshe uses the unique, nonstandard word “Nitzavim” when he comforts Bnei Yisrael. What is the intrinsic meaning of this word that Moshe applies here?
I would like to suggest a few answers to this problem. Bnei Yisrael were traumatized by hearing all the calamities that would befall them if they were to abandon God and His Torah. The prospect of this grim future would have one of two results. This might deter any sane person from doing Aveirot, or, more likely, this might cause people to despair and opt to leave Judaism, thereby avoiding the potential punishments. Therefore, Moshe informed them that the Tochachah was similar to a “scare tactic.” Bnei Yisrael had been breaking God’s laws during their forty year tenure in the wilderness; if He hadn’t destroyed Bnei Yisrael then, why should He now? Furthermore, Moshe realized that people were ready to abandon the Torah, so he made all of Bnei Yisrael enter a new Brit in which they reaccepted the Torah. Moshe used the word Nitzav since it helped Bnei Yisrael reminisce over how Hashem had saved them in the past. The root of Nitzav appears when Hashem saved them from the sea, as Moshe says to them, “Hityatzevu UReu Et Yeshuat Hashem,” “Stand fast (grammatically related to the word Nitzav) and see the redemption of Hashem” (Shemot 14:13). Thus, Moshe hoped his comfort would lead to Bnei Yisrael taking the first approach to the Tochachah – that of being scared to sin. The problem with this approach is that it fails to explain why Hashem wanted to destroy Bnei Yisrael after the Cheit HaEigel, relenting only after Moshe’s persistent prayers. If the predicted punishments were never to occur, why would Hashem in fact be “willing” to carry them out?
I would like to suggest yet another approach. The Midrash Eichah Rabbah states that this Pasuk means that Bnei Yisrael are strong and ready to stand throughout all the travails that come their way. The Semichut Parashiot (which becomes much clearer) helps us see the reason why Bnei Yisrael survive years of persecution: “LeOvrecha BiVrit Hashem Elokecha,” “To accept the covenant of Hashem, your God (i.e. the Torah).” Moshe is telling Bnei Yisrael how to deal with future predicaments. Whenever Bnei Yisrael have problems, they should know that they must adhere to the Torah despite the difficulty. The Midrash Tanchuma echoes the reason for Bnei Yisrael’s survival through all their numerous troubles, and asks why we, the Jews, survive exile, while the Goyim do not. The answer is that even when Goyim are faced with troubles, they do not recognize God (even though His existence is so blatantly obvious), as is stated, “Shefoch Chamatecha Al HaGoyim Asher Lo Yedaucha,” “Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not recognize You” (Tehillim 79:6). However, when we are faced with sorrows, we call out and turn to Hashem and His Torah, as stated in Tehillim, “Tzarah VeYagon Emtza UVeSheim Hashem Ekra,” “I will find troubles and sorrows, and I will call out in Hashem’s name” (Tehillim 117:13). When one goes before a king or a judge to ask that his life be spared, he is usually so preoccupied with his predicament that he doesn’t have time to shipshape his appearance. However, Jews, in honor of Rosh HaShanah, wear their nicest clothing, cut their hair, eat delicacies, and usually buy a new garment in honor of the day. Are we proving our insanity by making one of the soberest days of the year into a Yom Tov? The Tur (Hilchot Rosh HaShanah 581) says that since we learn Torah, we are confident that God will save us. The Chafetz Chaim was on such a high level that he knew that the end of European Jewry was pending. He took three of the great Rabannim of the time - Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Yosef Kahaneman (the Ponovitzer Rav) and Rav Weisbloom - and told them what was about to happen in Europe. He instructed them that if the Jewish people were to survive the destruction of Europe, they would need to establish strong centers of learning elsewhere. From these great Rabbanim emerged the great Yeshivot of Lakewood and Bnei Brak, which helped revitalize Torah in America and in Eretz Yisrael. There are volumes upon volumes of stories that show that Torah is what insures Jewish survival.
This answers only one of the questions, and doesn’t answer the difficulty of why did Moshe use the word Nitzavim. I will answer this question with another question: Why is the Torah so scrupulous in mentioning every person in Am Yisrael, especially the people who are still unborn, who will enter the Brit? The Midrash HaGadol notes the use of the same root of Nitzav at the three places the Torah was taught: Har Sinai (Shemot 19:17), the entrance of the Ohel Moed (ibid. 33:8), and here. At Sinai and in the Ohel Moed, God’s existence was blatantly obvious. Scores of miracles were observed every day in the Mishkan, and God had no shortage of special effects at Sinai. In these places, God’s salvation by observing the Torah was a very understandable progression. However, in Parashat Nitzavim, right before Bnei Yisrael entered into Eretz Yisrael, and in Galut, where Hashem’s obvious involvement in everyday life is hard to see, are also times when we – every member of Klal Yisrael - are called upon to be Nitzavim, standing and keeping the faith.
The Midrash proceeds to offer the first interpretation presented above - that Nitzavim is to comfort us and is to help us stay on the Derech. Seemingly, the Midrash is comparing the acceptance of the Torah to the Tochachah. How can the Midrash assert that these two events, one good and one bad, are analogous? The Midrash is actually trying to teach us a key lesson. On paper, our commitment looks terrible. The whole thing is a Tochachah! Shabbat, which is MeiEin Olam HaBa, looks like a weekly trap to punish Jews. Thirty-nine Avot Melachot and myriads of Toladot for which the punishments range from the hefty financial burden of bringing an animal sacrifice to death by stoning! However, isn’t Shabbat is the best day of the week, MeiEin Olam HaBa? Shabbat isn’t the only aspect of Judaism that seems to be onerous. Obviously, in order to make the Torah not a Tochachah, there must be a spiritual dimension of the Jew. Many a student that studied Torah in the great European Yeshivot still smoked and ate ham on Yom Kippur. They had all the intellectual and conceptual parts of the Torah, but they didn’t have the spiritual aspect. Noah Feldman also had all the intellectual parts of the Torah that he could want; however, he still intermarried and is openly hostile towards observant Jews, as he recently publicized. The Jews at the time of the Second Beit HaMikdash studied Torah, but the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because they didn’t recite the Berachah of VeHaarev Na, which asks Hashem to make the Torah sweet in our mouths, before they learnt (Nedarim 81a). They had all the intellectual pursuits, but they didn’t have a spiritual side. After the Shoah, among the survivors, who was religious and who wasn’t? The people who remembered Judaism as devoid of any light or joy - the ones who didn’t have the spiritual side to them - lost their connection. However, the ones that remembered Shabbat as MeiEin Olam HaBa, or the ones that truly felt the Berachah of VeHaarev Na - those were the ones who remained religious. The Torah, Judaism, and the individual Jew are not complete unless they also have a spiritual side to them. Unless we can see the intrinsic beauty within the Torah, it becomes a curse and Tochachah for us.
Moshe Rabbeinu told us that the Torah would keep us safe throughout the years of persecution, and he also told us that to preserve the Torah, there has to be a spiritual aspect of the Torah, too. Too often, we learn Torah and perform Mitzvot by mere rote, creating a severe lack of the feelings and spiritual energy they are supposed to engender. If we put enthusiasm and conscious effort into every Mitzvah, every second of learning Torah, we will merit greater spiritual elevation and fulfillment thereby.