Avoiding Self-Serving Justifications – Nitzavim 5779

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

The Torah describes a final gathering of the Israelites before Moses dies (Deuteronomy 29:9- 28). To late thirteenth century Rabbi Bahya ibn Pakuda this gathering is reminiscent of the covenant struck at Sinai. Like at Sinai, all the people stood together as one (Exodus 19:17) to affirm their allegiance to the commandments (Exodus 19:8). Rabbenu Bahya maintains that that second covenant is necessary because the first one was broken. It was nullified by the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:4). And because the first covenant was broken, the second covenant, unlike the first, had to be confirmed by an oath (Deuteronomy 32:11).


What Rabbenu Bahya comes to teach is that when trust is violated – leaving any future commitment in doubt – any acceptance of responsibility requires confirmation. The emergent message is akin to the Russian proverb writer Suzanna Massie taught President Ronald Reagan in the mid 1980’s: “doveryai, no proveryai” – trust, but verify. Entering into talks on nuclear weapons, President Reagan was advised to accept what the Soviet Union promises but ensure that the promise will be kept. Reagan learned the proverb, cited it often, and operated accordingly.


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch had a different take on events at the end of Moses’ life. It was not a second covenant but a qualification of the first: a covenant that was still in force despite the Golden Calf. To Rabbi Hirsch the matter of utmost concern to Moses was that some Israelites might argue that individuals may sin with impunity since consequences only result from the collective repudiation of God and His Torah. Hence, Moses warns the assembly that anyone who confidently says “I shall be well though I walk in the stubbornness of my own ways (Deuteronomy 29:18) is doomed to punishment. God holds the nation accountable for sin, punishing the people with exile (Deuteronomy 29:26-27) and God holds individuals accountable for sin (Deuteronomy 29:20).


What both commentators share is their understanding of human psychology. People will always be seduced by self-interest, sometimes expressed by the violation of norms and sometimes expressed through self-serving justifications. But the difference between the two is that Rabbenu Bahya hold out the possibility that knowing that one’s conduct is being monitored may prevent an individual from succumbing.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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