Can a relationship survive after one of the parties has gone astray, has been unfaithful, or has just constantly failed to keep up his end, his responsibilities? Parashat Nitzavim and Parashat Bechukotai offer two different answers to this question.
Both Nitzavim and Bechukotai describe the aftermath of Israel’s sinning against God, and of their having suffered and been punished as a result. However, the meaning of that suffering, and the state of the relationship that follows, differs radically in these two parshiyot. In Bechukotai, the focus is on the past sins. We are punished for our sins, we confess our sins, and while God does not abandon us, our relationship with God, even after the punishment and the confessing, remains distant and chilly. In Nitzavim, in contrast, the focus is on our moral character and our relationship with God. Our suffering leads to self-reflection, which leads to a returning to God, and this creates a new relationship, a stronger relationship, a lasting relationship.
In both parshiyot, the words shav, to return, and its near-homonym, shavat, to rest, play a central role, appearing seven times in near proximity in each parasha. Bechukotai follows closely on the heels of Behar, which focused on the Sabbatical Year, the command to let the land rest one out of every seven years. In its transgressions, Israel abandons these practices, and it is only during exile when the land can once again rest:
Then shall the land enjoy her Sabbaths, shabtoteha, as long as it lies desolate, and you be in your enemies’ land; even then shall the land rest,tishbot, and enjoy her Sabbaths, shabtoteha. As long as it lies desolate it shall rest, tishbot; because it did not rest, shavta, in your Sabbaths,bi’shabitoteichem, when you dwelt, bi’sivtikhem, upon it. (Vayikra 26:34-35)
The goal, then, is a fixing of what has been corrupted and restoration to a past, ideal state of affairs. Compare that to our parasha, and the seven-times use of shev, to return:
And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come upon you … and you shall call take them to heart, vi’hasheivota el li’vavekha… And you shall return, vi’shavta, unto the Lord thy God, and shall obey his voice… Then the Lord you God will return, vi’shav, your captivity and have compassion upon you, and will return, vi’shav, and gather thee from all the nations… (Devarim 30:1-3)
And you shall return, tashuv, and obey the voice of the Lord… for the Lord will again, yashuv, rejoice over you for good, as God rejoiced over thy fathers… if you turn, tashuv, unto the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul. (Devarim 30:8-10)
Here, the point of the suffering is that it brings about movement and change. After we have suffered, we take things to heart; we turn inside ourselves. This inner movement leads to outer movement, we return to God, which then results in reciprocal movement on God’s part, God returns to us and returns our people to each other and their land. God and Israel have grown apart, but when Israel learns to change, they can begin to move towards each other once again. Our relationship is now defined by a dynamics of change and movement. Thus, even after we have drawn close, we will continue to draw even closer to God, and God will continue to draw even closer to us.
This is not about removing the bad and restoring things to the way they were. It is a returning that is not about reverting. It is a returning that is a turning in and a turning towards. By turning into ourselves, by turning towards God, we do not recapture the old. We create something new, something better: “And God will do good to you, and multiply you above your fathers (30:5).
What allows for one response in Bechukotai and a different response in Nitzavim? One answer might be simply circumstances: in one case the people confess but do not change, and in the other they are truly prepared to change. But it seems that there is another factor at play here, and that is how the relationship, the brit, is conceived. The brit, our covenant with God, demands that we fulfill all of the mitzvot. Inevitably, we will fall short, and we will transgress. Do such violations, especially in cases when they are willful and plentiful, constitute an abrogation of the brit?
The two parshiyot offer different answers. In Bechukotai, we are told at the very outset that the sins that bring about the Divine curses are an annulment of the brit (Vayikra 26:15). What saves us is that God remains committed to the covenant with the forefathers. And as to the covenant with us, God will keep it even when we have abandoned it (Vayikra 26:44). In contrast, in Ki Tavo, the enumeration of the Divine curses that lead up to Nitzavim, we hear of violating the commandments, but never of annulling the covenant (Devarim 28:15, 20, 45; the one exception is idolatry, and only from the perspective of others: 29:4). This difference is also reflected in the way these sections end. The section of curses in Bechukotai end with the line: “These are the decrees, ordinances and teachings…” (Vayikra 26:46). The parallel section in Ki Tavo ends with: “These are the words of the covenant…” (Devarim 28:69). In Bechukotai there is no brit, we have abandoned it. In Ki Tavo, even after sin, the brit remains.
The relationship with God after sin and after punishment is also radically different. Where the brit has been abandoned, God will save us for the brit with the forefathers, will remember the land, and will not fully abandon us, true (Vayikra 26:42). But the relationship remains a distant and chilly one, for God will neither redeem us nor restore us to the land (Vayikra 26:43-44). Where, however, the brit remains intact, then when we return to God, God will return to us, God reaffirms the living relationship with us. Thus, God will redeem us and return us to the land (Devarim 30:3).
So why does the brit survive in one case and fail in the other? The key question seems to be, to what degree our relationship is based on an idealized picture of perfection or based on reality with all its shortcomings. If God expects us to be perfect, or even if just we expect that from ourselves in our relationship with God, then when we slip from that ideal, we will have stepped out of the brit. Perfection is expected, and when it is not achieved, the black mark of failure always remains and can never be fully erased. We can confess our sins, we can accept our punishment for them. This will help somewhat; at least justice will be served and the past offense will be somewhat softened. But the fact of past violation will always remain, the brit will forever be damaged.
The alternative to this perfection-based, and backwards-looking approach is an approach that is imperfection-based and forwards-looking. It is an approach that accepts that we are imperfect, that we will make mistakes, that we can work to become better, but we don’t necessarily start out there. This is an approach that can make peace with the past violations if they lead to future growth, if they can improve who we are, if they can bring about change. The brit actually can be strengthened as a result, since this is a brit that is based on future possibility and not on the past failures.
What happened between Bechukotai and Nitzavim? Why did the nature of the brit change from one parasha to the next? It is worth remembering that Bechukotai was given at the foot of Mt. Sinai, at the beginning of their time in the Wilderness, whereas Nitzavim was given at the end of 40 years of sojourning. What happened in those 40 years was something profound. The Children of Israel showed over forty long years that they were prepared to stay committed to the covenant even in the face of failure and adversity. They were refused entry into the land and were fated to years and years of pointless wandering. Imagine how many times during those years a person would have been tempted to say: “This is pointless! God hasn’t given us what God promised! Let’s just give up on this whole enterprise!” Actually, someone did say that, namely Datan and Aviram (Bamidbar 16:13), but everyone else managed to hold onto the faith, to persevere even when it seemed like the relationship was over.
We showed that we were able to remain committed to the relationship even when it seemed doomed to failure, even when it was hard to see God’s keeping up of God’s end. If we are prepared to be committed to the relationship regardless of what may come, then so is God. It has become a relationship that transcends current realities and failures, that we remain committed to because we have faith in the other side, we have faith in the future.
Samuel Johnson once quipped that a second marriage was the triumph of hope over experience. When we recommit to a relationship, we are choosing to define the relationship by hope. We accept that there will be error, backsliding, transgression. But if we remain committed knowing this, then the relationship can survive. In so doing, we affirm our faith in the other person; we accept him or her knowing their shortcomings. And we affirm our faith in the future. We have faith that the relationship can continue to grow, and we have faith that we – both parties of the relationship – can continue to grow, grow individually and grow together.
As we enter into Rosh HaShanah, let us look back on our past transgressions, but do so for the purpose of looking forward. Let us not beat ourselves up because of a mistaken ideal of perfection. Let us rather ask ourselves what we have learned, how we can change. How we can continue to hold fast in our relationship to God, so that relationship continues to grow, so that we continue to draw closer to God just as God continues to draw closer to us.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah!