Torah Portion Nitzavim Notes
Deuteronomy 29:10-30:20 

Introduction - This is the last day of Moses’ life. We’re headed now toward the end of his message and should pay very close attention to every word. It is lovely, poignant, moving, and meaningful. Musically, it has the feel of Beethoven’s late string quartets. I say that only to create a reference relative to other portions of the text that were bigger, more dramatic. Sacred text, for believers, of course, is all of its own.

I.        Read 29:9-14. There’s so much here we could spend much of the class on it. You, all of you, are standing today before God. What does that mean?

A. 1. All of us, later clarified as whoever is present here with us today and whoever is not, are standing here. Who is this, and why does it matter?

(It clearly includes the people who were there. But it’s also all those (souls?) who will follow, extending through us and to all in the future. It might include all those who had come before. Indeed it could be read, perhaps should be read, as all who will one day come to the mountain, as envisioned in the prophets. All stand before God.)

2. Why standing?

(Possibly, we’ve been lowered by certain chastisements. Whatever, it’s as if we’re at Sinai (at least in front of the ark), to renew the covenant. This raises the question: why would we renew the covenant?

The people are about to enter the promised land. Re-establishing a commitment to the covenant would be natural for these people, to cement and freshen the bond. But what again do we think the promised land to be?

This is, broadly, to be that space of our lives, whatever our geography, where we cleave to God and live in covenant with God. Thus, we re-new the covenant before going into the land.)

3. What’s the significance of “today?”

(I don’t want to go to the notion of “born again.” But isn’t it possible that that day and indeed every day is a day for the renewal of the covenant? We should feel that this is TODAY! If we felt that we stand before God each day, what a difference it would make. Or that we are today there with Moses, all of us that day! This is so very powerful. It’s an idea that one should put in one’s mind, roll it around, ponder it often, and let it seep into one’s heart and soul often and thoroughly.

Quote Chabad piece.)

B. Why does Moses list all the types across the spectrum of people who are standing there?

(This is surely to flesh out the concept of all, so that we get a good flavor of all. It’s not just for leaders, or the powerful, or the old and established. It also includes the proselytes and presumably both those in the midst of the camp as well as those on the outskirts.)

C. What do you make of the further delineation of all to those from the chopper of wood to the drawer of your water?

(This could be another way of saying all types, including menial workers, or even outsiders brought in to do this work. This is the common understanding.

Or, closer to the body of the language, it could mean more. It could mean those who serve as well as those who are served, as a way of showing greater inclusion.

But it could be even deeper. What have we always associated with wood and water? Torah and spirituality! So, in a way, this is who we are to be: choppers of wood are people who read, learn, and provide from God’s word, and drawers of water are those who bring forward spiritual nourishment to support others. We are responsible, each to others, in helping people live in sync with God’s word and spirit.

While our class might be dubbed The Third Well, I suggest we consider ourselves as choppers of wood and drawers of water. Now that’s a fine statement of identity.)

II. Read 17-19. In this discussion of idolatry, we come upon this poetic and haunting account of what can happen inside the soul that can makes one  go astray or lead others to go astray. Can you explain it?

(The root of this “metaphorical” plant seeks to grow and begins with a desire simply to learn or explore other ways, but it flourishes and produces heresies that are as destructive of the wood of the plant as gall and wormwood. This gives a spreading sense as well, perhaps in the mind, heart, and soul of the person. Plus it causes ruin of “moist and dry alike.” How would this cause the ruin of the “dry?”

Wouldn’t this behavior be enticing to others who are essentially innocent? “Hey  - I should try that out, too!” One influences others, often to the bad, which is why we doubly worry about rot, perhaps especially its infecting the dry wood, too.

Added to the problem is the person’s confidence that all will be ok, and there will be peace, and no consequences. We saw this delusion, this false confidence of immunity, in the concern of the prophets. It actually allows for a creeping addiction to sin since the idea of being ok takes down the wall of caution and concern (Rashi). This is all displeasing to God.)

III. Read 28. After further reflections by Moses on the consequences of abandoning God, we come to this very interesting verse. What does it mean?

(The people bear responsibility for that which they know or have reason to know, whether it’s others’ sins or their own. If there’s a hidden or unknown sin or something else that’s not been revealed, it’s within God’s purview to know and handle. It’s our duties, including dealing with the waywardness that we know in ourselves and in our community, that we must be alert to, to know, and to act to change and correct.

YET, why are the hidden things God’s concerns?

(Perhaps these are God’s domain.

But do we have the capacity to increase that which is revealed by studying and learning and living God’s word?


And how do we apply what we learn in verse 28 after the discussion we just had about verses 17-19?

One possibility is that the process of the root growing and having the effect of wormwood or poison wood is often hidden, or, at least, it is for most of the time until it has had its fully destructive impact. God sees this and worries about it, especially in its potential to generate future apostasy.

While we only have the duty to fulfill what’s been revealed, it’s important to see that the largely hidden process of the root/wormwood problem has just been revealed to us! I would argue, as difficult as it may be, and risky, to be able to detect and deal with problems that are still emerging but are not yet manifested, we should examine for this rotting and reveal it at the earliest possible time so as to limit the damage it does to us and our community.)

IV. Read 30:2-3. What’s the significance of these verses?

(God always awaits our turn and return. But our return involves following the Instruction, and with all our heart and soul. God will take us back in love.)

V. Read 11-14. What strikes you here?

(These are not some deep philosophical concepts. We have been taught the way through the mitzvoth. It’s not baffling; it doesn’t require scholars or “wise men.” It’s not for a select few. It’s not beyond the reach of a good person, and it’s not in heaven or across the sea, requiring something other-worldly to obtain it for us or a long journey requiring a hero such as in Gilgamesh, or seeking a rare and distant scholar. It’s near; it’s in our mouth and in our heart. We can speak the truth from out of what we know in our mindful hearts that have been prepared in God’s way.

It helps, as we have learned a moment ago, that it is what’s in front of us, what’s been revealed, that we’re responsible for fulfilling.)

VI. Read 15, 19-20. We’ve talked a lot about the notions in the Bible about life and death, blessing and curse. What do we learn further here about the meaning of the text on these matters?

(Life is clearly the state of being with God, and death is apartness from God. One leads to blessing, and the other leads to curse. One clearly gets the sense that life and death here are not necessarily correlated with physical life and death. It’s a choice to be or not to be with God, with life associated with the former and death with the latter. And there’s a clear sense that this is a choice we make each day, in all that we decide and do.

Choosing life, walking with God, living in covenant with God, following God’s word, learning, teaching, and living by God’s word (after all, eytz chayim, Torah, means the tree of life) - these are the crucial features of living in God-land, of living in the land of promise. We find life in the promised land, for us and all who follow.)


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