Thoughts on Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech

Moshe’s time with Bnei Yisrael is quickly coming to an end, as he winds down his last discourse in this week’s parasha. This is his last impassioned plea with Bnei Yisrael to remember all that ADONAI has done for them, all He has revealed to them, and what He lovingly expects from them. The parasha is a double portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech, Deuteronomy 29.9 – 31.30.[i] Often when we read the Tanakh, we get the impression that it is primarily male oriented, and at least slightly misogynistic. But this week’s parasha begins with an all-inclusive call to

Carefully follow the terms of this covenant, so that you may prosper in everything you do. All of you are standing today in the presence of the Lord your God – your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water. (29.9 – 10)

As with last week’s parasha, the purpose for carefully following the terms of the Covenant is laid out plainly, “…so that you may prosper in everything you do.” But it was not just the men, or the camp leaders that heard this impassioned plea of Moshe, everyone – “your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps,”– was to hear and to take heed of the words of the covenant that Moshe was reiterating. There was not to be a single person left out of the hearing, so that no one could later say, “we didn’t hear” or “it doesn’t apply to us.”

The “foreigners living in your camps,” or in some translations the strangers or sojourners, in Hebrew is גר, ger, which carries a number of nuances and understandings. Most popular today is that of a proselyte or convert. While this is a modern understanding, there is some question as to what was intended by the original writers/compliers. The word ger also can mean resident alien, such as Abraham in Genesis 23.4 or Moshe in Exodus 2.22 or Israel while in Egypt. While both Abraham and Moshe lived among their neighbors, as foreign residents, neither one of them converted to their ways. In other words, it appears to be possible that the ger could well “live” among Bnei Yisrael, and by their presence with Bnei Yisrael they fell under the dictates as well as the blessings and curses with the rest of Bnei Yisrael – without becoming Bnei Yisrael. In his commentary on Deuteronomy, Jeffrey H. Tigay notes, “Resident aliens did not normally own land and were dependent on others for their livelihood. Because of their dependency, gerim were often poor and exposed to exploitation, and the Torah regularly includes them along with the widows, orphans, and the poor in appeals and laws designed to protect vulnerable groups.”[ii] Tigay is commenting on the equal justice that is to be administered to both “an Israelite and a foreigner residing among you” (Deuteronomy 1.16).  We just saw a perfect example of this common care in Ki Tavo last week

When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied. (Deuteronomy 26.12)

Tigay goes on to comment in this week’s parasha, that “while not Israelites, resident aliens are subject to the civil law and certain religious prohibitions, enjoy particular rights, and are permitted to participate in certain religious celebrations. For this reason, they, too, take part in the covenant ceremony and must hear the Teaching read (Deuteronomy 31.12; Joshua 8.35).[iii]

Recently, the Jerusalem Counsel of Acts 15 has become the topic of discussion once again. The council decided not to burden the new believers from the nations with the requirement of full conversion to Judaism, as some were insisting (Acts 15.5). The general consensus of the counsel was that the they “should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God,” (15.19). They did however, establish four guidelines seemingly to facilitate moral and table fellowship (15.20), then adding “For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath” (15.21). It would appear that these new believers in Yeshua were in fact familiar with the synagogue and the Teaching (Torah) that was read every Shabbat. They were “resident aliens” as it were – not full members but participants.

Later, Rav Shaul would write to the believers in Rome, “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’.” (Romans 10.12-13) There is no difference in our coming into the kingdom, we must all come through Yeshua our Messiah and Lord. However, neither this statement nor what Shaul wrote to the believers at Galatia, (Galatians 3.28) changes the distinction between Jew and non-Jew, nor the individual responsibilities of each. As long as there are physical distinctions between the sexes, there will be distinctions between various cultures and social groups, including Jew and non-Jew – what there is not and never will be, is a difference in the way that we each approach Messiah. The barrier that has come down is not that which makes us distinct, but rather that which demands that we stay distinct but united.

This week’s haftarah is the last of the seven weeks of consolation, where Israel has been comforted since the horrors of Tisha b’Av, and awaits Rosh Hashanah and the memorial of the coronation of the King of the Universe. The reading is found in Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9. The passage begins in heights of joy and exaltation as redeemed Israel proclaims

I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of His righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61.10)

The prophet recognizes that it is not Israel’s righteousness or Israel’s own power that has brought about her restoration; it is her God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the father of our Messiah Yeshua. More than that, it is not only that our God has rescued and redeemed Israel, He felt every bit of her pain and despair while exiled from His presence. The prophet closes with these words

In all their distress He too was distressed, and the Angel of His Presence saved them. In His love and mercy, He redeemed them; He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (Isaiah 63.9)

All the time Israel was in exile, Hashem too felt the pain and despair of the separation from His am segula. His love and His mercy brought about our redemption, and not something that we ourselves have done.

Israel will forever remember and “will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord, the deeds for which He is to be praised, according to all the Lord has done for us — yes, the many good things He has done for Israel, according to his compassion and many kindnesses” (63.7). It would do us well to remind ourselves to do likewise.

Shabbat Shalom

[i] Unless otherwise noted, Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

[ii] Commentary by Jeffrey H. Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary; Deuteronomy. The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1996, p 12.

[iii] Ibid. p 278.

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Michael Hillel with his wife Vered and their three children, made aliyah from the US in late 80s, and in biblical fashion has, for the last 27 years, done whatever his hands have found to do. In 2013 Michael began working on a MA degree in Messianic Jewish Theology. Using the tools learned from his studies, he has been writing teaching and devotional materials from both the Tanakh and Apostolic Writings. Since Messianic Judaism shares a communal context with both Judaism and Christianity, he incorporates material from both traditionally Jewish and Christian perspectives.