Parshat Nitzavim: The importance of the month of Elul for the relationship between Israel and Hashem
In the month of Elul (an acronym for “I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me”) we contemplate our marital relationship with Hashem and try to make amends, better ourselves, and repent. We try to worship Hashem with enthusiasm; not out of habit.
Dr. Keren Kirshenbaum teaches in the Israeli programs at OTS’s Midreshet Lindenbaum
Last week, when we read chapter 26, verses 17 and 18 of Parshat Ki Tavo, we read about the covenant sealed between Hashem and His people: “You have affirmed this day that Hashem is your God… And Hashem has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people…”
Rashi interprets the word he’emir, translated here as “affirmed”, as “separating”: Hashem had separated you, singling you out because of your importance, exalting you. In other words, Hashem set the Jewish apart from the other nations, and the Jewish people has set Hashem apart from the heathen gods. In his translation, Onkelos uses the Aramaic verb hatava (“And you hatavt Hashem on that day to be a God for you… and Hashem hatvach on that day to be His desired people.”
What does the verb hatav mean?
Some commentators draw a parallel between this word and the Hebrew verb lachtov, “to chop down”, as in chopping down trees, and just as trees are cut, so to do we “cut” a covenant between Hashem and the people of Israel. Jastrow, in his dictionary, translates the verb hatav as “to fall in love”, similar to the Arabic verb khatab – to propose (marriage). Rabbi Baruch Epstein, in his biblical exegesis, Torah Temima, interprets he’emir as does the Mishna in tractate Yebamot: asa ba ma’amar, i.e. when a deceased man’s brother sanctifies his yibum.
In other words, a sort of marriage covenant has been struck between the Holy One, Blessed Be He and the nation of Israel. After the couple had seemingly selected each other from among all the rest, exalting and elevating each other, they married. They made a final commitment to each other.
It is known that marriage is very exciting at the beginning of the relationship, but, if the couple doesn’t work on their relationship and strengthen their bonds, marriage tends to dwindle. If couple wishes to rise up and transcend their routine, the first thing they must do is be aware that there is work to be done, and then, they must desire to try to draw nearer and strengthen their bond.
In the month of Elul (an acronym for “I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me”) we contemplate our marital relationship with the Holy One, Blessed Be He, and try to make amends, better ourselves, and repent. We try to worship Hashem with enthusiasm, not out of habit. As we saw in vidui hama’asrot, the “Confession of the Tithings”, in last week’s Parsha (Ki Tavo 26:13), “I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments”. The Gur Rebbe, in his commentary, the Sefat Emet, says the following: “I have not transgressed the commandments, and I have not forgotten you, who has commanded me to keep them, so that I do not keep the commandments out of habit.”
In other words, says the Gur Rebbe, I have not kept the commandments as a matter of routine, but rather, I have done so enthusiastically. When a commandment is new to you, you become enthusiastic about performing it.
Parshat Nitzavim is always read immediately before Rosh Hashanah, and one recurring motif in this parsha is the concept of repentance: “and you returned unto your heart”, “and you returned unto Hashem your God”, “and Hashem your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples…”, “and you shall return and heed the word of Hashem”, “For Hashem will again delight in your well-being”, “once you return to Hashem your God with all your heart and soul”.
In Tractate Megillah of the Babylonian Talmud, page 29a, a beraita is quoted, which contains Rashbi’s interpretation of the verse “and Hashem your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples…”. The text reads as follows: It is taught in a beraita: Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai says: Come and see how beloved the Jewish people are before the Holy One, Blessed be He. As every place they were exiled, the Divine Presence went with them. They were exiled to Egypt, and the Divine Presence went with them… So too, when, in the future, they will be redeemed, the Divine Presence will be with them, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 30:3): ‘Then the Lord your God will return with your captivity’. It does not state: ‘He will bring back’, i.e., He will cause the Jewish people to return, but rather it says: ‘He will return,’ which teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, will return together with them from among the various exiles.”
Rashi explains: “It should have said ‘He will bring back’. From this, our sages deduced that the Divine Presence dwells among the people of Israel in the misery of their diaspora, so that when they are redeemed, He makes Scripture write “Redemption” of Himself, that He will return with them.”
The verb shav usually indicates that something is moving. We are constantly in motion! We need to ensure that we move in the right direction, in the true direction, drawing nearer to Hashem, and performing genuine teshuva for heaven’s sake. We don’t tread water. We are constantly active, even if we aren’t always conscious of this! Echoing the words of Hillel the Elder in Sayings of the Fathers (1:13): “one who does not add [to his knowledge] causes [it] to cease”. Anyone who stops learning forgets his studies. That person is still active, but is also forgetting. We either study all of the time, or we forget all of the time. There is no middle ground. We either advance in our fear of heaven, or we fall back!
During the month of Elul, we must contemplate our relationship with the Holy One, Blessed Be He and return to Him, renewing and clarifying our covenant with Him, so that we can merit what is foreseen in the book of Hosea (2:22-23): “And I will espouse you forever… I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, And with goodness and mercy, In the words of the haftarah for Parshat Nitzavim: “As a youth espouses a maiden, Your sons shall espouse you; And as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, So will your God rejoice over you.”