Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Nitzavim  5768/ September 27, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Choose Life


Yonah Bar-Maoz


Department of Bible

In language and subject matter, Moses’ last instructions to the Israelites in Parashat Nitzavim bring to mind the story of Adam and the tree of knowledge.  Here is what we read this week (Deut. 30:15-20):

See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity.   For I command you this day, to love the Lord your G-d … that you may thrive and increase, and that the Lord your G-d may bless you in the land that you are about to enter and possess.   But if your heart turn away and you give no heed … I declare to you this day that you shall certainly perish; you shall not long endure on the soil …  I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse.  Choose life – if you and your offspring would live…. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil…

Compare this with the Garden of Eden narrative (Gen. 2:9, 16-17):

And from the ground the Lord G-d caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and bad.   And the Lord commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.”

Looking at these two passages we observe certain key words and parallel ideas:   good and bad, life and death, blessing and curse (blessing and curse are mentioned in the story of the Garden of Eden in the overall narrative).  The idea of freedom of choice also appears in parallel, essentially expressing the appeal to individuals and to the nation to decide which path they will choose.   Likewise, the two outcomes are parallel:   choosing correctly brings blessing in the fruit of the earth and natural increase, and choosing incorrectly brings expulsion from the good land and the threat of death that casts a shadow over the life of individual and nation.  Beyond this, the overall narratives have an underlying parallel:   the young nation being addressed in Deuteronomy is like Adam after he was created and placed in the Garden of Eden, and the members of this nation are about to take their first steps on their own.  In both instances the concerned father sends his child/nation on its way with words of guidance and warning to help him face the anticipated stumbling blocks.

Given the similarity and extensive parallels between the two passages, each can be used to help interpret the other in places where the text is obscure.  For example, one could understand G-d’s words to Adam, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat,” not only as granting permission to eat from those trees, but also as sound advice directing him along the proper path, as is done by the instruction to the people, which we used for the title of this article: “Choose life – if you and your offspring would live.”   The explicit words to the people, “if you and your offspring would live,” also have an obvious parallel in the story of Adam, although not explicitly stated:  if he eats from the trees of the garden and refrains from eating from the tree of knowledge, he and his offspring will live, just as in doing the opposite he will bring death/mortality to himself and his offspring.

The way in which the sinners are tempted to transgress the divine command are also similar:  they are persuaded that despite the Lord’s warning, nothing bad will happen to them, as we read:  “And the serpent said to the woman, ‘You are not going to die, but G-d knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad’” (Gen. 3:3-4); and in this week’s reading: “When such a one hears the words of these sanctions, he may fancy himself immune, thinking, ‘I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart’” (Deut. 28:18). What is more, the person who goes against these sanctions does it “to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike” (Heb. sefot ha- ravah et ha-tzeme’ah), which obscure expression was interpreted by Ibn Ezra as follows:  “In my opinion, the word sefot comes from tosefet (=compounding; i.e., adding the thirsty [tzeme’ah] to those who thirst is quenched [ravah]), as in sefot hatat (=piling guilt on guilt, Isa. 30:1).  And the reason for this is that ‘I shall be safe,’ even though ‘I follow my own willful heart,’ for I will survive by virtue of the good deeds of the righteous, since they are numerous and I, a sinner, am but one.” [1]

This interpretation provides a fitting answer to the question why Eve did not simply eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge herself, but took the trouble to share it with her husband. [2]   In both cases the person who transgresses the divine command thinks that the anticipated ruin will be kept at bay if it also threatens others, and the more numerous they are, the less likely the single person will be punished, and even if he is punished, the gain still outweighs the loss, since in the meanwhile the wicked person enjoys the freedom of following his willful heart, just as Eve satisfies her yearning for the fruit, which is “a delight to the eyes” and “desirable as a source of wisdom.” [3]

Another parallel sheds light on Scripture’s attitude toward the location of the hills in the passage on the blessing and the curse, where the function of these peaks is first mentioned (Deut. 11:29-30):   “Both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the west road [more literally, the “road of the setting sun”] that is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah – near Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh.”  The careful specification of the location of these hills is not so that the Israelites will be able to identify them. [4]   More likely this should be interpreted as an allusion to the passage in Genesis:  “He drove the man out, and stationed east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3:24).  In the story of the Garden of Eden man is banished from the west to the east, and now the Israelites come from the east, heading “beyond the road of the setting sun”, i.e., westward.  This is to say that the land of Israel is like the Garden of Eden, to which the Israelites are about to return.

Having the Israelites assemble before Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal upon entering the land fits in well with the instruction given the people:   “choose life” – in other words, the very act of turning to face the national Garden of Eden pushes the people in the right direction, enabling them to be privileged with beneficence and life.   Based on the many parallels that we have seen, we can say that placing man within the gates of the Garden of Eden serves to direct him to return to his primordial state.   The cherubs in the Garden of Eden, like the hills of Gerizim and Ebal, are landmarks along the way, and therefore it was important for the Torah to specify their location in both passages. [5]

A certain passage from the Sages’ interpretation of the ceremony of the blessing and the curse also is better understood in the context of similarities with the story of the Tree of Knowledge (Mishnah, Sotah 7.5):

How were the blessings and curses proclaimed?   The Israelites having crossed the Jordan and arrived at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, … six tribes ascended to the summit of Mount Gerizim and six tribes ascended to the summit of Mount Ebal, while the priests, Levites and Aaron stood below, between them, with the priests surrounding the Ark, the Levites surrounding the priests, and all Israel on either side, [6] as it is said: “All Israel, with their elders, officials, and magistrates, stood on either side of the Ark” (Josh. 8:33).  They turned towards Mount Gerizim and began with the blessing: ‘Blessed be anyone who does not make a sculptured or molten image,’ and both groups answered Amen, then they turned to face Mount Ebal and began with the curse:   “Cursed be anyone who makes a sculptured or molten image” (Deut. 27:15), and both groups answered Amen, until all the blessings and curses had been completed.

Turning this way and that towards the two hills is not spelled out in Scripture, for there it only says that the curses are to be proclaimed (see Deut. 27), not that blessings are to be proclaimed alternating with curses, but perhaps this alternating motion is symbolized by the imagery of the ever-turning sword between the two in the Garden of Eden.

These parallels apparently are no coincidence, rather they are present deliberately to teach us about the role destined for the Jewish people:  to set right that which has been spoiled by mankind.  This is also Nahmanides’ interpretation, and therefore he took a verse in this week’s reading that refers to the people of Israel and extended it to all mankind (Deut. 30:6):

Then the Lord you G-d will open up [alt. circumcise] your heart -- …  Scripture seems to be saying that ever since Creation human beings have had the power of choice, to be either righteous or wicked, however they wish; and all the time the Torah promises them reward for choosing the good and punishment for desiring evil.   But in the time of the Messiah, choosing good will come naturally, and no one will long for that which is unbefitting, nor want such things at all. Thus it is with circumcision, mentioned here; for coveting and lusting are like foreskins to the heart, so that “circumcising the heart” removes from it all covetousness and lust.   On that day human beings will return to the state that preceded the sin of primordial man, naturally doing that which should be done and not wishing for one thing and its opposite.

[1] A similar interpretation of this verse is given in the Olam ha-Tanakh  commentary on Deuteronomy (eds. M. Weinfeld and D. Cohen Tzemah, Tel Aviv 1994, p. 218):   “The wicked person sees no reason to fear fate, for if destruction be wrought upon the earth it will be a general holocaust, bringing annihilation both to the wicked (‘the thirsty’) and to the righteous (‘those whose thirst is quenched’), while in the meantime the wicked person can enjoy what he is doing.”

[2] The Midrash interprets Eve’s motives and behaviors as follows (Genesis Rabbah 19.5):  She took of its fruit and ate.  She also gave some to her husband, and he ate (Gen. 3:6) – She said to him, ‘What do you think? That I will die and another Eve will be created for you?!  As they say, there is nothing new beneath the sun (Eccles. 1:9); or do you think I will die and you will remain here without a spouse?!  He did not create it a waste, but formed it for habitation (Isaiah 45:18).”   Further on the word also (Gen. 3:6) is interpreted as indicating many:  Eve also fed it to the animals and birds.

[3] The basic similarity between the person who chooses evil in this week’s reading and Eve is brought out by the warning, “do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge” (Num. 16:39); he follows his heart and she her eyes, as the Sages said:  “Rabbi Levi said:   the heart and eyes are the two purveyors of sin” (PT Berakhot 1.5 [3.3]).

[4] These hills are prominent on the landscape, and generally settlements are identified by prominent topographical signs, and not the other way around:   someone who does not know the location of Gilgal and the terebinths of Moreh would not be able to find the specified peaks.   It is also reasonable to assume that when the Israelites entered the land, as in our day, it was easier to locate Shechem, situated at the foot of these hills, and to note the hills’ location by the location of the town.

[5] This understanding of the text is not as revolutionary as it might seem, and was referred to by Shalom Rosenberg, who wrote:  “Medieval philosophical exegesis is surprising on this point.   We tend to think of the cherubs as guarding the Tree of Life so as to deny us access to it, but they viewed the cherubs guarding the way to the Tree of Life so that we are able to reach it.”   Tov ve-Ra ba-Hagut ha- Yehudit, Universita Meshuderet, Tel Aviv 1985, p. 51.

[6] Although Deuteronomy 27:12-13 says that the people stood on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, this is not likely.  The parallel with the story of the Garden of Eden supports the Sages’ interpretation that most of the people stood at the foot of these hills, as described in Joshua 8:33.   Having the people stand between the two peaks, the mountain of the blessing and the mountain of the curse, life and death, is like man standing in the Garden of Eden, faced with two equal options:  the tree of life and the tree of death.  Keeping his distance from the tree that brings death, means choosing the tree of life, which is situated “in the garden” along with all the other trees permitted him.