September 28, 2016
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1040, Nitzavim, Nitzavim-VaYeilech, Parsha Thought


The Parsha Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbos before Rosh Hashanah.

Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Hurwitz (1558-1628 known as the Shaloh, the acronym of the title of his magnum opus) established the premise that all Torah portions are connected to the times in which they are read.

Accordingly, we must ponder the connection between the parsha of Nitzavim and Rosh Hashanah.

There are at least two connections:

The first is found in the very first verse:

“You are standing firmly today, all of you together before G-d your G-d…”

According to the Zohar, the word “today” in this context refers to Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment.

The Torah is thus saying that we should be confident that we will stand firmly before G-d and receive a victorious judgment on this day.

A second connection is in the verse that states:

“Perhaps among you there is a person (growing in wickedness like) a root that is sprouting (bitter herbs, like) hemlock and wormwood…”

Commentators have observed that the initials of the four Hebrew words shoresh, porah, rosh, v’la’anah (root, sprouting, hemlock and wormwood) form the word Shofar. This conveys the message that the sounding of the Shofar can help even one who has sunk so low that he has become like a poisonous and bitter root.

We can find another connection to Rosh Hashanah in these four words. All the letters of Rosh Hashanah itself are contained here. Hence this phrase discusses both the day of Rosh Hashanah and the Mitzvah associated with this day, which is sounding the Shofar.

These two allusions to Rosh Hashanah nicely complement each other. How does one become confident that he will stand firm and be victorious on Rosh Hashanah? The answer is in the second hint; it is through the sounding of the Shofar.

We must however try to understand why the Mitzvah of Shofar is hinted specifically in the words that discuss a poisonous root. There must be an even deeper message in the Torah’s reference to evil as a root.

When we read further in the text, the Torah is quite harsh in its response to this person who is like an evil root and states that G-d will not forgive him and he will be obliterated and all of the curses mentioned in the preceding parsha shall befall him.

It may be inferred from this line of reasoning that the root of evil is far more problematic than the fruit of evil. What is the rationale for this? What precisely is the root of evil and how is it ameliorated by the Shofar?


One way of interpreting the root of evil is by considering the role of thought as opposed to speech and action.

On one level, evil thoughts are not sins, unlike speaking and doing evil.

However, there is one aspect of thought that is indeed a more serious and egregious sin than actual performance of a transgression.

To understand this, we have to recall the Tanya’s division of the human personality into two strata. First we have our personalities, which include our intellect and emotion. Second, we have the “garments” of the soul, i.e., thought, speech and action. They, like garments, express the contours of our personality; thought, speech and action are the concrete manifestations of our soul.


But there is a fundamental difference between thought and speech and action. Speech, and to a greater extent action, are external phenomena; they project our personalities outward, whereas thought is an internal expression of our feelings and ideas to ourselves.

There is another unique characteristic associated with thought: While thought is not synonymous with the soul itself, being merely a “garment” of the soul, it is nevertheless a garment that can’t be shed, unlike speech and action. One could cease acting and stop talking at will but one cannot cease thinking. It is an autonomous process and it points to the way the thoughts of a person are more intimately connected to the person’s soul than speech and action. While we can easily remove our clothing, we cannot remove our skin which is, in some ways, like a garment which covers our blood vessels and internal organs.

This explains why the Alter Rebbe states in Tanya that harboring negative thoughts of another is worse than speaking those negative thoughts aloud.

Taken at face value this assertion appears to conflict with a basic principle of Jewish law, mentioned earlier, that G-d does not punish a person for sins committed in the realm of thought. Moreover, when the Torah states the prohibition against Lashon Hara (slander) it makes it clear that it means speaking evil, not thinking evil. Indeed, the Talmudic and colloquial expression Lashon Hara literally means the “evil tongue.” How then could the Alter Rebbe state that thinking ill of others is worse than speaking ill?

The answer lies in the distinction between what we do to harm others and what we do to harm ourselves.

When we act or speak wrongly it has an impact on the world outside of us because these “garments” are directed outwards. The damage they do us should not be discounted, but the primary harm is done to those who are affected by our actions and speech. According to the Baal Shem Tov, the evil tongue harms the person who has been slandered not just because his reputation has been sullied but also because the spoken word has the power to actualize hidden evil. The one slandered may have kept his vices under control, but when the gossiper vocalizes the victim’s faults it causes these faults to be magnified and exposed.

However, the garment of thought has the inverse effect. While it cannot wreak as much havoc on others because it is hidden, thought has a much greater damaging effect on the person who knowingly and intentionally harbors those negative thoughts.

The reason for this is that since thought is so close to the soul itself, when the garment of thought is of a destructive nature it chafes the soul that is so tightly enveloped by that garment.

We can now see why the Torah ascribes greater harm to the root of evil than to evil itself. The root of evil, as explained, refers to the negative thoughts we may harbor. While it is relatively easy to correct our actions and words, it is extremely difficult to change our corrupted thought patterns. They are far more damaging to our souls and therefore require a much more intense form of repentance.


If thought is the root of speech and action, then the faculties of intellect and emotion are the root of thought. It follows then, that if one’s intellect and emotions are corrupted it is even more damaging. If our minds and emotions are warped, then it is even more challenging to correct them because these are characteristics that define us even more than thought. They are inseparable parts of who we are and are at the root of all that we do.

In truth there are even deeper levels of the soul which are far more intrinsic to who we are and are at the root of our faculties. And when these internal “root” levels of the soul are corrupted it can be an almost insurmountable challenge to expunge that insidious evil.


We can now understand why the Torah alludes to the Shofar of Rosh Hashanah precisely in the section of the Torah that discusses the poisonous roots of evil.

By linking the Shofar to poisonous roots, the Torah is actually telling us what is needed to expunge the most insidious root forms of evil. Conventional methods fall short of accomplishing that because they only deal with the surface of one’s personality or possibly hidden dimensions that are close to the surface. The sound of the Shofar represents the primal cry that emanates from the deepest and most hidden parts of our souls. It is the very source (shoresh in Hebrew) and root of our entire being. The Shofar is the excavator that digs deeply into our psyche, reaches the core and then corrects it, polishes it and transforms it. Thus the word Shofar also is connected to the root (no pun intended) of the word that means to beautify and embellish.


The above also applies to the Great Shofar that the prophets speak of concerning the Messianic Age. Indeed, one of the reasons for the sounding of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah is to invoke that Great Shofar.

Throughout history we have, for better or worse, dealt with the most glaring and obvious faults, both collectively and individually. The most entrenched forms of evil—the root evil—however, was left for the end.

This may explain why in recent times we’ve been exposed to the greatest good and the greatest evil. It was not too long ago that we went through the Holocaust. Even today there are millions of people who want to visit death and pain on virtually all those who don’t follow their ideology. Yet, notwithstanding all this worldly evil, we have also experienced the greatest good in history, from scientific and medical breakthroughs to the religious freedom we enjoy throughout the world.

How do we account for this paradox?

One possible answer to this question is that all of the cumulative good of the past has dealt a blow to the more surface forms of evil, while the deepest source and root of evil has not been touched, enabling it to rear its ugly head in a last-ditch attempt to wreak havoc on the world.


It is therefore the Great Shofar that G-d sounds in the moments leading to the Final Redemption that reaches into and uproots the evil and deals it a fatal blow.

Our role in this process is to hear the sound of the Rosh Hashanah shofar, the micro version of G-d’s Great Shofar, while searching deeply into our souls to find the essential G-dly spark that lies at their cores. This will vanquish the root and core of evil; a root for a root.

We will then certainly stand firmly before G-d our G-d and we will be inscribed and sealed by Him with a good and sweet year; and most importantly, we will be blessed with a year of genuine and complete Redemption by our righteous Moshiach!

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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