Nitzavim: Lip Service

April 13, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Posted in Nitzavim | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on August 30, 2010.)

Perhaps there is among you a man or a woman or a clan or a tribe whose mind is turning aside today from God, our God, to serve gods of those nations.  Perhaps there is among you a root bearing poisonous fruit and wormwood.  And it may be, when he hears the words of this curse, he blesses himself in his mind, saying: Peace will be mine, because I will go with the stubbornness of my mind, in order to vanish— the thoroughly-watered among the thirsty.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 29:17-18)

sefot = to vanish, to sweep away, to snatch away

Moses addresses the rationalizing wrongdoer in this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim (“taking a stand”).  Last week’s portion described a ritual in which all the people say “Amen” to curses for those who secretly do wrong, and to blessings for those who do the right things even when nobody else knows it.  But what if someone says “Amen” and then continues on the wrong path, secretly serving an alien god?  Or perhaps, in today’s terms, secretly serving an obsession that alienates the person from friends and family?

What about when we give lip service to the right “god”, but rationalize to give ourselves permission, and even blessing, to serve the wrong god whenever we can get away with it?  What about when we figure we can put up a good front, vanish into the crowd, and go unpunished?

These are the questions raised in the two verses translated above—though commentators have puzzled for centuries over the meaning of “vanish, the thoroughly-watered with the thirsty”.  Many translations consider sefot a transitive verb meaning “to sweep away” (something).  Then if the watered and the thirsty represent two types of people, the good ones get swept away, or destroyed, with the bad ones.  If the watered and the thirsty represent two types of sins, the whole range of sins is punished.  But if sefotis an intransitive verb meaning “to vanish”, then the guilty people disappear in the crowd of innocent people.  This interpretation better fits the idea of paying lip-service to the curse and blessing, while secretly serving alien gods.

Are the secret sinners the watered, or the thirsty?  Commentary supports both interpretations.  I prefer 16th-century Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno’s idea that the ethical and holy majority thirst for spiritual values, while the secret sinner keeps watering his unholy desires.

Why do so many of us secretly indulge in obsessions that we know are unhealthy or unethical or unholy?  Because, according to Deuteronomy/ Devarim 29:18, we go along with the stubbornness of our minds.  The word I translate as “mind” is levav, which also means heart, and the seat of all consciousness, including emotions as well as thoughts.  I know from my own struggles with dieting that while one part of my mind says “Amen” to the knowledge that I would benefit from losing weight, another part of my mind says, “No, it’s too hard to refrain from eating when I want energy or comfort”.  Fighting that part of myself is such a struggle, I give up and “go with the stubbornness of my mind”, choosing a temporary, flimsy sort of peace.

Yet this week’s Torah portion gives all of us who secretly serve the wrong gods some hope.  Moses says: You shall return to God, your God, with all your mind and with all your soul.  For this command-ment that I command you today, it is not too extraordinary for you, and it is not distant.  It is not in the heavens … and it is not across the sea … for the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart/mind, to do it.  (Deuteronomy 30:10-14)

And what is “this commandment”?  Probably the requirement to do teshuvah, to repent 0f wrongdoing and turn around, return to the path of the holy and the good.  Moses tells people to  turn around, return to the right god, in verses 10:2, 10:8, and 10:10.

So let’s not give up.  Teshuvah is possible.  We are created with both the ability to do wrong, and the ability to change and do right.  If turning around seems too hard, too extraordinary, and too distant, then maybe we’ve been taking the wrong approach.  If we pray with our mouths and listen with our minds and hearts, we may hear a new answer, and see a new path for returning to a good life.

I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse; and you shall choose life.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:19)

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