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Parasha Nitzavim: Choosing Life in Adversity

Nitzavim (You Are Standing)
Deuteronomy 29:9 (10)–30:20, Isaiah 61:10–63:9, Romans 10:1–21

“You are standing [nitzavim] today in the presence of the Lord your God …. You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the Lord your God.”  (Deuteronomy 29:10–12)

Last week, Parasha Ki Tavo (When You Enter) concluded with Moses telling the people that 40 years after they had attained nationhood, they still had not acquired “a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear” all that Adonai had done for them throughout their wilderness journey.  (Deuteronomy 29:2–4)

In this week’s portion, the Lord confronts the people to choose now His way of life and blessings, or the pagan way of death and curses.

Bar Mitzvah boy-Torah scroll-synagogue

A 13-year-old Jewish boy reads the Torah for the first time publicly from the bimah in a synagogue.  (Flickr Photo by dutchbaby)

Freedom to Choose Good

In Parasha Nitzavim, God sets before the Jewish People two diametrically opposed choices: life and good, or death and evil (et ha’chayim v’et ha’tov; v’et hamavet v’et hara).

Just as a good father might instruct his son or daughter as to the best decision to make, God implores His children to choose life.

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”  (Deuteronomy 30:19) 

This verse provides an incredible insight into the purpose of the Torah.

God gave the Scriptures to us as a guide so we know what is good and what is evil; nevertheless, it is up to each of us to either live according to God’s Word by accepting the good and rejecting the evil — or to live according to the dictates of our own heart and the current cultural perspective or worldview.

This is the concept of free will that God has given to mankind.

One ancient Jewish Bible commentator, Rashi, cites a story, or midrash, in the oral tradition (in the treatise Niddah) about the angel responsible for conception who asks God whether the child will grow up to be strong or weak, wise or foolish, rich or poor.

The angel, however, never asks God if the child will become wicked or righteous, since God may determine the circumstances of one’s life but the decision to choose the good path or the evil one has been left up to man’s own free will.

parchment-klaf-Torah scroll on display

The handwritten Hebrew of a precious Torah scroll.

Freedom to Choose Life in Adversity

While it is not possible to control all the circumstances that affect our lives, we can determine how we will react to them.

It might be easier to be happy or be nice when everything is going well, but there is no guarantee that we will be happy or nice even in the midst of good times.

Likewise, tragic circumstances do not have to shake us from our firm foundation so that we lose faith in God and become miserable and bitter.

One Messianic Prophecy Bible team member tells the story of an older woman whose son had passed away from cancer, leaving behind a lovely young wife with three small children.

“They were an observant, Orthodox Jewish family, and I wondered how they would react to such a terrible tragedy,” she said.  “It was then that I overheard the woman speaking to a friend on the phone. Her words were full only of honor toward God, frequently uttering, Baruch Hashem (Blessed be His Name).

“It reminded me of how Job was able to say, ‘He gives and He takes away.  Baruch Hashem,’ after losing his health, his children and his livelihood.”  (Job 1:21)

Israel-cemetery-Mount of Olives

An Orthodox Jewish woman stands near a fresh grave on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

A famous psychologist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, wrote in his book Man’s Search for Meaning about humankind’s ability to exercise free will during the horrific circumstances of the Nazi concentration and death camps.

Although we might expect that a person would be incapable of acting in kind, moral, humane ways under such terrible conditions, Frankl reports in his book that this was not the case; he observed many examples of heroic individuals.

Frankl wrote, “[These men] offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way…”  (pp. 86–88)

Even under extreme physical and emotional stress, we can choose our behavior—whether to love and forgive—or remain in hatred and bitterness.

Holocaust-victims-death camp

Jewish women and children walk toward the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Most of us will never have to endure such brutal conditions, but each one of us will be presented with choices throughout our lives.

We must choose whether or not to be courageous, unselfish and faithful; or bow to fear, fight for our own way, and lose our human dignity, especially during serious adversity.

Our morality and ethics will be tested at various times throughout our lives.  We cannot plead, as did some of the Nazis charged with war crimes, who defended themselves saying, “I had no choice…. I was just following orders.”

The truth is that we always have the ability to walk in accordance with the values of the Torah or to walk along that broad path that leads to destruction.

We would do well to consider carefully our ways as we prepare to enter into the Days of Awe this weekend.

Ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem

Two Orthodox Jewish girls walk in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Freedom to Return to God

Sunday begins a ten-day period called Days of Awe (Yamim Nora’im) that ushers in Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish calendar New Year 5777) and ends with Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).

These ten days are meant to be a period of somber introspection during which time we pray for forgiveness of our sins—and ask for forgiveness from those we have sinned against throughout the year.

The repentance required at the time of these upcoming Fall Feasts of the Lord is meant to bring each person back to God.

In Yeshua’s day, people came to Yochanan (John the Baptist) at the Jordan River during this season of preparation for the Fall Feasts, to be immersed in the mikvah (baptized).  There, he warned them that they must produce fruit demonstrating their repentance.

“John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.’”  (Luke 3:7–8) 

The Hebrew word for repentance, teshuvah, comes from the root shuv, meaning return.

path to sin, path to god, repent

Repentance (Hebrew: Teshuvah — תשובה‎‎) literally means return. It is a complete turning away from the path of sin and death and a turning back to God and Life.

Repentance (Hebrew: Teshuvah — תשובה‎‎) literally means return. It is a complete turning away from the path of sin and death and a turning back to God and Life.

In other words, when we choose the path of sin, evil and death, it leads us out of the presence of God.  And when we repent, we return to the presence of God.

We learn in this Parasha, that the result of unrepented sin for the Israelites would be even more than personal separation—it would also be national exile.

But Baruch HaShem, exile is not the end of the story.

In this Parasha, God tells the Israelites that those who will be scattered into exile due to sin, would be gathered back to the Promised Land when they returned to Him.  And after He gathers and returns them to their own land, He would bless and prosper His people Israel.

“When you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey Him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where He scattered you.”  (Deuteronomy 30:2–3)

Aliyah-Nefesh B'Nefesh

New olim (immigrants) arrive in Israel.

Still, today many believe that it is just too hard to obey God or keep the Torah.

In this Parasha, God promises that it is not too difficult for us to walk in obedience:

“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach….  The word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”  (Deuteronomy 30:11–14)

Moreover, there are many rewards for being obedient.

These rewards are not relegated to olam habah (the world to come) but are also for our lives here and now.

They are not only spiritual rewards for when we get to Heaven; they are also physical, material, and emotional rewards such as long life, prosperity, and success for today.

Men's section of Orthodox synagogue in Israel

Israeli synagogue (Photo by Elihu Silberman)

Yet, evil persists, and we know that even the obedient ones fall prey at times to the oppression and attacks of the enemy and to a world that is fallen.  Yeshua (Jesus) even said that “in this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

Those who have troubles do not have to succumb to fear.

While Frankl reminds us that we can find meaning even in the midst of suffering, Scripture tells us that the enemy cannot take away from us many good things: our freedom to choose good; our faith in the God of Israel; and our faith in Yeshua as our Messiah, who sacrificed His own life to release us from spiritual bondage so we can be truly experience freedom in this life.

No matter how bleak things look at any given moment, God will show us evidence of His goodness and mercy while we are yet on this earth.

As King David said, “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.”  (Psalm 27:13)

Choosing life entails loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, listening to the voice of His Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) and keeping His commandments.  Doing so is the very best choice we could ever make—for this is our very life!

“Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to His voice, and hold fast to Him.  For the Lord is your life, and He will give you many years in the land He swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”  (Deuteronomy 30:20)

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