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Chancellor's Parashah Commentary

Parashat Nitzavim
Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20
October 1, 2005    27 Elul 5765

Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Love is surely a tough emotional state to prescribe by law. Yet that is what Deuteronomy dares to do time and again. It is the first book of the Torah that orders us to love God. A feeling of irresistible attraction is to be the ultimate ground for the loyal adherence to God's law. Deuteronomy introduces the theme early and returns to it often. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might"(6:5). And a few chapters later, "If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul"(11:13).

If these verses sound familiar, they should, because they are the key passages of the first two paragraphs of the Shema prayer of the siddur, recited twice daily in the morning and evening service. An affirmation of our faith, the Shema rests on the linkage between love and obedience first enunciated by Deuteronomy.

In our parashah, near the end of the book, Moses takes up the subject again with renewed urgency. In the space of a few verses, he stresses three times the supreme importance of wholehearted love (30:6, 16, 20). Chastened and cleansed by defeat, degradation, and exile, ancient Israel will finally come to its senses, whereupon God will restore it to its homeland. Moses even speaks boldly of God performing a circumcision of the heart (30:6) to remove the impediments that have till now precluded an enduring covenantal relationship. To chose a life of observance requires an emotional impulse of unconditional love.

But there is more to this psychological substratum of faith than love. Deuteronomy balances it with fear. Our relationship with God must also turn on awe and reverence. Again the demand is raised early — "Revere only the Lord your God and worship Him alone"(6:13) — and often — "May they always be of such mind, to revere Me and follow all My commandments"(5:26). Still further, Deuteronomy envisions girding our fidelity to praxis with a combination of fear and love: "And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him"(10:12). The idea, then, is to merge these discreet emotions into a single magnetic force binding us to God, and it is for that unified state that we petition God each morning in a prayer heavily influenced by Deuteronomy: "Unite our hearts to love and revere You [ahavah rabbah]".

In truth, we need God's help, because love and fear are conflicting emotions. God's transcendence and sublimeness inspire in us feelings of utter insignificance. We tread with caution, subdued by the chasm that separates the human from the divine. The grandeur tarnishes our reverence with a touch of coercion. We pay homage out of fear of a presence beyond our ken and control.

Love, in contrast, is a feeling that attracts rather than repels. There is nothing prudential or calculating about it. Our adoration of God is its own reward, an end in itself. It is the experience of God's immanence that draws us near of our own free will. We offer our allegiance voluntarily and wholeheartedly. If fear provides a measure of protection from the demonic, love envelopes us with purpose and holiness.

Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (better known as Nachmanides), who lived nearly his whole life in the town of Geronda in Catalonia before emigrating to the land of Israel in 1267 and dying there three years later, authorized a commentary to the Torah noteworthy for its mystical strains. In his extensive discussion of the fourth of the Ten Commandments in Exodus (20:8) dealing with Shabbat, he drew some concrete distinctions between the dispositions of fear and love. The occasion is the deviation in the first word of the commandment. In Exodus (20:8) the text reads, "Remember [zakhor] the Sabbath day and keep it holy,"while in Deuteronomy (5:12), it reads, "Observe [shamor] the Sabbath day and keep it holy."Nachmanides felt that to remember is the more proactive verb and related to the Sabbath's positive commandments. The impetus for performing these rituals (like welcoming the Sabbath by lighting at least two candles, one for zakhor and the other for shamor, or making Kiddush at the dinner table) flows from love, and their goal is to elicit God's compassion. A master, after all, is pleased if his servant heeds his instructions.

Contrastingly, the verb to observe is less forceful, implying only not violating the many prohibitions that set Shabbat apart from the rest of the week (such as not kindling a fire or cooking or handling objects related to the work week). The impetus for heeding these negative commandments is fear, and compliance is meant to pacify God's anger.

Nachmanides then goes on to generalize that acting religiously out of love is more meritorious than out of fear. The will power, energy, and cost required of us are greater. Accordingly, when a positive and negative commandment collide, the positive takes precedence. To save a human life, for example, always overrides the prohibitions that define resting on Shabbat. Conversely, the punishment meted out for transgressing negative injunctions is far harsher than for failing to fulfill the positive ones. In the former case, we incur God's wrath because our acts are evil; in the latter our inaction simply disappoints.

It is not for naught that our High Holy Days are traditionally called the Days of Awe. With their emphasis on God's sovereignty and our waywardness, they are designed to fill us with dread and remorse. Are we worthy of having our lives extended for another year? But God is in no rush to issue our sentence. We are granted a short stay to muster the evidence of a change of heart. Nothing is predetermined. An outburst of contrition and resolve on our part could move God from convicting to absolving us. As we sense God's empathy for our plight, we ascend from fear to love. We grasp that living Jewishly offers us a rudder and refuge in an unpredictable world. Fear is only our point of embarkation. A taste of eternity awaits those of us on the journey ready to seize the rhythm and ritual of Judaism without ulterior motive. In due course, we are destined to discover that the gratification comes in this doing.

May you and yours be inscribed for a year of spiritual growth and bodily vigor.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch


The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch's commentary on Parashat Nitzavim are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.