You are standing this day all of you before Hashem your G-d: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, even all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water; that you should enter into the covenant of Hashem your G-d – and into His oath – which Hashem your G-d makes with you this day; (Devarim 29:9-11)
1. Moshe’s covenant does not include words of consolation In the opening passages of Parshat Netzavim Moshe tells Bnai Yisrael that they stand before Hashem poised to enter into a covenant with Hashem. The specifics of this covenant Moshe outlined in the previous parasha. Essentially, this covenant focuses upon the consequences of observing or neglecting the commandments. Observance of the commandments will be rewarded with prosperity and wellbeing. Neglect of the mitzvot will provoke severe punishment, suffering and exile.
Earlier – in Sefer VaYikra – the Torah discussed the consequences of observing or neglecting the mitzvot. That discussion bears many similarities to the consequences outlined by Moshe in his presentation. Both presentations begin with a description of the blessings that the people will experience in response to their adherence to the commandments. After describing these blessings, both presentations then describe the terrible suffering that will result from neglect of the Torah. However, there is one remarkable difference between the two presentations. Moshe’s presentation ends with a description of the suffering. The earlier presentation describes the suffering but then continues with the assurance that Hashem will never abandon His people. They will experience tragedy, terrible suffering, and oppression. However, ultimately the people will repent and return to Hashem. Hashem will honor His covenant with the Patriarchs. He will redeem His people from exile and return them to the Land of Israel. Why does Moshe’s presentation not include this element of comfort and consolation?
And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you shall contemplate yourself among all the nations, where Hashem your G-d has driven thee. And you shall return unto Hashem your G-d, and hearken to His voice according to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul. Then Hashem your G-d will turn your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from all the peoples, where Hashem your G-d has scattered you. (Devarim 30:1-3)
2. Moshe’s belated consolation In Parshat Netzavim, Moshe explains that despite the warning provided by the covenant, some will test Hashem and ignore the warning. They will abandon the Torah and even adopt idolatrous practices believing that they will somehow escape the terrible consequences described in the covenant. Moshe forewarns the people that there will be no escape. Violation of the Torah’s precepts will be punished with destruction and astounding devastation. Ultimately, the people will be exiled. Moshe then adds that the suffering and afflictions of the punishment will eventually move the people to return to Hashem. When the people call out to Him He will respond. He will redeem His people even from the ends of the Earth and return them to the land of their ancestors. He will subdue the enemies of Bnai Yisrael and renew the blessings described in the Torah. In other words, Moshe provides a message of comfort and consolation. Hashem will never abandon Bnai Yisrael. The destiny of the Jewish people may include suffering and tragedy. But the ultimate redemption is assured.
In these passages, Moshe provides the consolation that he did not include in his description of the covenant. As explained above, the Torah’s earlier description of the consequences for observance or neglect of the mitzvot included within it a message of consolation. Why did Moshe exclude this message from his presentation of the covenant, only to append it immediately afterwards?
And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them; for I am Hashem their G-d. But I will, for their sakes, remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their G-d: I am Hashem. (VaYikra 26:44-45)
3. The destiny of Bnai Yisrael and the message of Moshe’s warnings It seems that there is a fundamental difference in the underlying messages of these two presentations. The earlier presentation in Sefer VaYikra was an exploration of the relationship between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael. In that context, the Torah explains that the relationship is predicated upon observance of its commandments. However, another aspect of the relationship is that it will never be severed. Although the destiny of the Jewish people will include suffering, oppression, even devastation and exile, ultimate redemption is assured. Redemption is inevitable because the bond between Hashem and His nation will not be broken.
The covenant presented by Moshe is not intended to describe the destiny of the people or the permanent character of the bond between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael. Instead, it ties the obligation to observe the Torah to positive and negative consequences. It is not intended to provide reassurance. It is a warning and admonition. Moshe ends his presentation of the covenant without providing an assurance of ultimate redemption. Such an assurance would be out of context. It would not have been appropriate for Moshe to moderate the severity of his warning by including a message of comfort and assurance.
Why does Moshe append a message of consolation in Parshat Netzavim? In Parshat Netzavim, Moshe is no longer discussing the contents of the covenant. He is discussing the future and the destiny of the nation. He foresees a time in the future in which the covenant will be neglected and the nation will be punished severely and exiled. He shares this vision with the people. Moshe recognizes that this vision may dishearten the people. They are prepared to enter the Land of Israel. They await the blessings that Moshe has described. But Moshe is revealing that these blessings will be short-lived. The nation will abandon the Torah and the blessings will be replaced by tragedy. Moshe recognizes that this vision invites despondency and hopelessness. He responds with an assurance. The suffering will pass. The nation will be redeemed. The bond between Hashem and His nation will not be broken.
Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goes forth, he returns to his dust; in that very day his thoughts perish. Happy is he whose help is the G-d of Yaakov, whose hope is in Hashem his G-d. (Psalms 146:3-4)
4. Will our destiny be secured this Rosh HaShannah? The message of the parasha could not be more relevant. The Jewish people are confronted by two possible futures. We have regained the Land of Israel and Hashem has fulfilled the promise to ingather our exiles from the ends of the Earth. He has shielded us from the enemies who would destroy us and wipe out the Jewish people from the Land of Israel. We seem to be moving in the path toward ultimate redemption. However, there is another possible futures that can be imagined in our nightmares. The enemies of the Jewish people are becoming ever stronger. The number of countries in which Jews can live in safety and free of persecution decreases each year. The determination of our enemies to destroy the State of Israel and the Jewish people seems more virulent than ever. Our enemies both deny the Holocaust and fantasize of bringing about a second Holocaust in our lifetimes. These are not merely fantastic flights of imagination. These enemies, every day, come closer to creating the weapons of destruction that would enable them to visit upon us the destruction that they declare is their intention.
The world responds with warnings, admonitions, ineffective sanctions, and equivocations. Who will save the Jewish people from those who wish to destroy us, if not Hashem? Are we perhaps being signaled that we should recognize that our safety and security does not come from international treaties and promises of mutual assistance? Does not current dilemma communicate to us that we can only rely on Hashem?
Every Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur provides us with the opportunity to shape our destiny. We have the power to secure the blessings described by Moshe and to achieve the destiny assured by the Torah. Alternatively, we can postpone achievement of our destiny or even invite our own suffering. Is this the year that we will seize this opportunity to create joy and happiness for ourselves, our families and all of the Jewish people?