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The beginning of this week's parsha starts with the words אתם נצבים. Couldn't it have used the phrase אתם עומדים ? I understand that in this context, both words mean "stand". Why use the term נצבים. here? What else is being conveyed?

Note: - Inevitably, words have multiple meanings. Please focus only on the differences of the meanings only as it applies to this verse.

  • Had it said Omdim, would you have asked why it didn't say Nitzavim? – Double AA Sep 5 '18 at 20:27
  • @DoubleAA judaism.stackexchange.com/a/89607/13438 – Alex Sep 6 '18 at 1:14
  • @DoubleAA I have a Gemarah kop. The Gemarah frequently asks "opposing" questions. I see nothing wrong with that. – DanF Sep 7 '18 at 13:54
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From something I wrote many years ago


The answer may lie in an unusual word choice – nitzavim. Had the torah wished to make a physical statement about where we were, it could have used a more common “omdim” for standing. Instead, it used a less common and more puzzling term. The word nitzavim is related to a few other concepts, each of which brings something new to the fore in its application the bnei yisrael. The baal haturim connects it to the statement made earlier in the chumash, by har Sinai “vayityatzvu tachtit hahar” (shmot 19:17) and it is thus deduced that all bnei yisroel were at this pronouncement as they were at the matan torah – the ones who were not there physically were there spiritually (resolving the apparent contradiction – as all were “nitzavim” standing in that same spiritual sense, but the text adds that it applies to those who were not physically there “with us”). But the word does more than that.

Nitzavim is connected to the Hebrew concepts of matzeva, a testimonial pillar, matzav, a general atmosphere, approach or attitude and nitzav, an appointed official (in fact, the commentator known as the netziv has a name which means both “pillar” and “prefect” or “governor”). When we look at why bnei yisroel were there and what their task was, it is clear that they had to be nitzavim and not just passively omdim. Hashem was designating the Hebrews for a task; they were to stand as an eternal symbols of His dominion and wishes for tikkun olam and they were to act as a light unto the nations, appointed to be spiritual torchbearers. This is no easy job and if they just “stood” there while being told, there would be little value in the pronouncement. They and we were not standing around, but being erected for all to see and be led by. We were the matzeva being built, the pillar for others to recognize, and we were being appointed as guardians over our behavior and examples of the appropriate matzav towards living in the world. While we were not all physically “standing” there that day to hear the words and therefore had to be explicitly told that we were included, we were there in spirit. And while we might try to excuse ourselves and absolve ourselves of the responsibility of kiyum hamitzvos, Hashem made clear that we are all recipients of an eternal charge on that spiritual level that goes beyond acceptance of law and moves into the establishment of the Jew as a fixed point, established as a guidepost for humanity.

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You might have guessed based on recent questions of this sort that I would turn to my favorite Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, from the writings of Rav Hirsch.

On page 108, there is an entry for the root יצב, which he translates as “erect; stand firm independently.” The applications he brings are: standing firm and upright (as in our passuk, נצבים); to erect (ויצב שם מזבח, Bereishis 33:20); to endure (יצב גבולות עמים, Devarim 32:8); a memorial (מצבה, Devarim 16:22); a pillar (נציב מלח, Bereishis 19:26); a military position (ויצב מצב פלישתים, Shmuel 1:13:23); and the stem of a tree (בשלכת מצבת בם, Yeshaya 6:13).

Compare this to the root עמד on page 187, translated as “stand in preparation to act.” Some applications parallel those of יצב above: enduring (ויכלת עמוד in Shemos 18:23), a pillar (עמוד ענן, Shemos 13:21), a station (והדפיתיך ממצבך וממעמדך יהרסך, Yeshaya 22:19; note that יצב is also used here), and ordinary standing (ולא עמד איש אתו, Bereishis 45:1); then there are those which are very different: stopping (ותמיד מלדת, Bereishis 29:35), sustaining (למען יעמדו ימים רבים, Yirmiya 32:14), raising (ויעמד רוח סערה, Tehillim 107:25), and receiving strong support (אם יהיה אלקים עמדי, Bereishis 28:20).

In other words: יצב means standing firmly planted, with no intention of going anywhere; עמד means standing at ready, preparing to act.

I think it is clear that the word נצבים in our parshah comes to indicate this when you consider that Moshe is passing them into a covenant. While a covenant is a commitment for the future, it’s more precisely a state of resolve - that is, one who is accepting a covenant is standing firm in resolution of accepting the agreement, rather than standing at the ready to fulfill the agreement. (Don’t believe me? The same dictionary on page 32 defines ברת as “to separate, highlight.”)

Rashi’s Midrashic explanation (placed after his comments to v. 12) give another layer of meaning to this choice of words:

עַד כַּאן פֵּרַשְׁתִּי פְּשׁוּטָה שֶׁל פָּרָשָׁה. וּמִדְרַשׁ אַגָּדָה: לָמָה נִסְמְכָה פָרָשַׁת אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים לַקְּלָלוֹת? לְפִי שֶׁשָּׁמְעוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאָה קְלָלוֹת חָסֵר שְׁתַּיִם חוּץ מִמ"ט שֶׁבְּתוֹרַת כֹּהֲנִים, הוֹרִיקוּ פְנֵיהֶם וְאָמְרוּ מִי יוּכַל לַעֲמוֹד בָּאֵלּוּ?! הִתְחִיל מֹשֶׁה לְפַיְּסָם — אתם נצבים היום, הַרְבֵּה הִכְעַסְתֶּם לַמָּקוֹם וְלֹא עָשָׂה אִתְּכֶם כְּלָיָה וַהֲרֵי אַתֶּם קַיָּמִים לְפָנָיו:

Until here have I explained the simple meaning of the passuk. This is the Midrash Aggadah: Why was Nitzavim placed next to the curses? For when Yisrael heard the 98 curses, plus the 49 from Sefer Vayikra, their faces became sickly, and they said, “Who can withstand this?!” Moshe began to appease them: “You are standing today” - you have angered Hashem very much, but He has not destroyed you; behold, you are still extant before Him!

In this explanation (my translation), it’s much clearer that the intention is to underline their standing firm today, not their outlook onto tomorrow.

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Rav Hirsch explains the meaning of the use in the first pasuke of Nitzavim 29:9 that the difference between the two words is a matter of the strength and effort being put into the standing. It emphasizes that the Bnai Yisrael have survived the 40 years in the desert and all the suffering that they had undergone from the slavery of Mitzraim on to being about to enter the land. It also emphasizes that Bnai Yisrael from now and into the future (to and past our day) will survive and maintain the Torah and the service to which we committed ourselves at Har Sinai No matter what trials and tribulations we undergo, we will be able to maintain ourselves נצבים. Not just passively עומדים but actively as a מצבה for the glory of Hashem and His torah.

אתם נצבים, (the root) יצב (a strong form of ישב with the צ sound) does not designate like עמד just the standing position. It is standing firmly, energetically, and puposefully. The תנחומא on our verse explains in a charateristic manner, the use of this term here instead of the usual עמד, which indeed is also used in V.14. In spite of all the unspeakable suffering depicted you are still נצבים, remaining upright and firm. They can all pass over your head, you outlive them all. In Ch.XXXII,23, it says חצי אכלבם ("Mine arrows will I expend on them" I.L.) חצי כלין והן אין כלין ("I will use up all My arrows against them but they will not be used up" I.L.) Yea the very sufferings themselves are a means for your enduring because they ensure your betterment. הן מעמידות אתכם וכן הוא אומר למען ענותך לנסך וגו (Ch VIII,2). And also אתם נצבים: Ye are those that remain! I depart, Joshua too, to whom I hand you over, will also depart, an so also the leaders who will follow in generation after generation, they all depart, and the nature of the leaders changes -- only you, the Nation is immortal, undying, remaining, in it the spirit to which Hashem has entrusted the perpetuity of His work is inherited, and in service of that spirit every leader enters. The Nation is the מצבה. the eternal pillar of His Torah.

There are four other references using the word נצבים each of which shows the force of the standing. Vayeirah 18:2 has the mal'achim actively standing directed towards him (as Rav Hirsch translates it). This shows the force of their standing there to attract his notice. Also note that in Vayeirah 18:8 it uses עמד which Rav Hirsch translates as waited on them showing the passive usage of standing.

Vayigash 45:1 Yosef's attendants are actively standing ready to carry out his commands.

In Shmos 5:20 when Moshe and Aharon leave Par'o after their unsuccessful meeting, men are standing to confront them. As Rashi says

They met: Men of Israel [met] Moses and Aaron, etc. Our Rabbis expounded: Every [instance of] נִצִים, quarreling, and נִ צָּבִים, standing, is a reference to Dathan and Abiram, about whom it is said: “came out and stood upright” (Num. 16:27). — [from Ned. 64b]

Finally, in Parshas Korach 16:27 Dasan and Aviram actively stand to confront Moshe and force a showdown. As Rashi says:

went out standing upright: Heb. נִצָּבִים, with a haughty bearing, to curse and to blaspheme, as in,“he stationed himself (וַיּתְיַצֵּב) [in an arrogant manner] for forty days” (I Sam. 17:16), said in reference to Goliath. - [Mid. Tanchuma Korach 3, 8, Num. Rabbah 12]

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