Parashat Nitzavim

Punishments, Land, And People

Even during their long exile from the land of Israel, the Jewish people will retain their covenant with God, despite the punishments God exacts against the land.

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Provided by the Orthodox Union, the central coordinating agency for North American Orthodox congregations.

Moses spoke with frightening detail regarding the destruction that will befall the people of Israel if they are disloyal to Hashem. Siege, famine, poverty, war, exile, desolation--all these are part of the covenant between the people and Hashem.

Then, Moses provides us with a glimpse of the future, after the destruction:

(21) And it will say--the later generation, your children who will arise after you, and the stranger who will come from a distant land--and they will see the plagues of that land and its afflictions with which Hashem afflicted it: (22) "Sulfur and salt, the entire land burnt, not to be sown, nor to sprout, nor for any vegetation to come up on it--like the overthrow of Sodom, Amorah, Admah and Tzevoyim which Hashem overthrew in His anger and His wrath." (23) And all the nations will say: "For what did Hashem do so to this land? What is the heat of this great anger?" (24) And they will say: "Because they forsook the covenant of Hashem, the G-d of their fathers, which He made with them when He took them out of the land of Egypt, (25) and they went and served other gods and prostrated themselves to them--gods that they had not known, and which had not benefited them. (26) And the wrath of Hashem burned against that land, bringing upon it all the curse that is written in this Book. (27) And Hashem uprooted them from their soil, with anger, with wrath and with great fury, and He cast them away to another land, as at this day." (28) The hidden matters are for Hashem, our G-d, but the revealed matters are for us and for our children forever, to fulfill all the words of this Torah (Deuteronomy 29).

Moses hopes, through this graphic depiction of what may happen, to jolt the people from their false sense of security, and to both warn and motivate them to prevent this scene from becoming a reality.

As harsh as this description may be, it is somewhat comforting to know that there will be a future generation to contemplate its effects and learn from it. Still, there are elements of this passage that are hard to understand. Let us examine this passage as explained by Malbim (Meir Leib ben Yechiel Michel, 1809-1879).

To begin with, verse 21 raises a number of questions:

Who will say, and to whom?  What will be said?  Would it not have been more reasonable for the phrase "and they will see the plagues of that land" to come before "And it will say," since the words are a comment on what is seen?

Therefore, Malbim says that this verse is a summary of a future encounter:

(21) And it--the later generation, your children who will arise after you--will say [and remark on the awful, but familiar, condition of the land], and the stranger who [as a result] will come from a distant land [will respond]; and they [the stranger] will see the plagues of that land and its afflictions with which Hashem afflicted it: (22) Sulfur and salt, the entire land burnt, not to be sown, nor to sprout, nor for any vegetation to come up on it--like the overthrow of Sodom, Amorah, Admah and Tzevoyim which Hashem overthrew in His anger and His wrath.

Clearly, this could not have been the original state of the land; this must have been the result of Divine intervention, punishment for the sins of the people of Israel.

In verses 23-27, the nations will ask, why did the land suffer for the sins of the people, and why was it so severely treated? The generation will counter that, while it is true that their forebears "forsook the covenant of Hashem, the G-d of their fathers," He had "made (it) with them when He took them out of the land of Egypt," long before their connection to the land. The future generation will share the stranger's amazement that the land is made to bear the punishment of the people. At first, Hashem turned His wrath against the land, and then, after exiling the people, He increased His punishments.

The Importance of God

However, despite all this, the people will retain their importance to Hashem. They will not have been absorbed into their exile. Although the exile will have occurred many generations before, they will appear "as at this day," as if the exile had just transpired. 

Still, says Moses, there will be no answer to the essential question: Why will the land have endured these afflictions? Therefore, Moses provides this answer in advance, which the future generation will say to the nations: The full understanding of the exile will remain unrevealed, known only by Hashem.

Revelation & Exile

On the other hand, "the revealed matters"--namely, the Torah and the commandments--remain, even in exile, "for us and for our children forever, to fulfill all the words of this Torah" to preserve us. Finally, when we will repent, the land will be healed of its afflictions. The land will not respond to anyone else, and will wait, like a woman whose beloved husband has traveled far away, for our return.

Malbim explains that this passage is a crucial postscript to the previous chapter of admonishments. The people might have thought that, once those horrendous and terrifying punishments will have been executed in full measure, the covenant with Hashem would have come to an end. On the contrary, Moses teaches, Providence will make the land absorb the brunt of Hashem's wrath, while the people will retain their distinctiveness in exile, so the covenant will still be in effect. 

If while in Galut (exile) the Jewish people repent and are faithful to the Torah then Hashem will remain with them in exile. They will yearn to return to the land, where all the commandments can be fulfilled. They will then be able to return to the land, and to Him, in love.

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Rabbi Avraham Fischer

Avraham Fischer is a rabbi at Darche Noam Institutions.