“Taking the next step” Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech 5777

Am Yisrael have spent the past forty years wandering in the desert and now they are camped just across the Jordan River, ready to enter their homeland. Before they can do so, they must enter into a covenant with Hashem. Moshe precedes the words of the covenant with an introduction [Devarim 29:9-11]: “You are all standing today before Hashem, the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel; your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp, from your wood-cutter to your water-drawer, that you may enter the covenant of Hashem and His oath, which Hashem is making with you today”. Rashi calls out the order in which the Torah lists the people who are entering into the covenant: the Torah seems to be describing a hierarchy, from national leaders to government officials to “every man” – John Q Public – through the young children all the way down to the lowest rung, the wood-cutters and the water-drawers.

Wood-cutters and water-drawers have always gotten a bad rap in the Torah[1]. After Am Yisrael cross the Jordan, one of the Canaanite nations, the Giveonites, are so scared of them that they disguise themselves as nomads, hoping that Joshua will have mercy on them. When their ruse is discovered, Joshua [9:21] relegates them to wood-cutters and water-drawers. They will forever remain second-class citizens.

Given that wood-cutters and water-drawers both sit at the bottom of the totem pole, it seems strange that the Torah would say “from your wood-cutters to your water-drawers”, as if to say “from your wood-cutters [all the way down] to your water-drawers”. If the Torah wants to say “from the highest to the lowest”, then it should have said “from the leaders of your tribes to your wood-cutters and your water-drawers”, thereby equating wood-cutters with water-drawers. Saying “from your wood-cutters to your water-drawers” seems to indicate that there is a vast difference between the two. The Seforno addresses this question by translating the verse as “from [the first of] your wood-cutters to [the last of] your water-drawers”, essentially equating between the two[2]. The Netziv of Volozhn, on the other hand, seems to side with our hypothesis, explaining that wood-cutting is one of the most difficult forms of labour while water-carrying is one of the easiest forms of labour[3], and that each person entering into the covenant with Hashem is judged according to his work.

I’d like to continue down the path blazed by the Netziv under the premise that the Torah is indeed differentiating between wood-cutters and water-bearers. Full disclosure: The following explanation is most definitely not the simple explanation of the verse. It can, perhaps, be called a “Hassidish” explanation, or a “drash”. The Talmud in Tractate Megilla [31b] rules that the yearly Torah readings should be arranged such that Parashat Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat immediately before Rosh Hashanah. While the reason the Talmud gives for this juxtaposition is utilitarian[4], it is very common to search for connections between Parashat Nitzavim and the central motifs of Rosh Hashanah, especially with repentance. This is the path that we will be taking. Rav J.B. Soloveichik was once asked[5] by a friend how he had spent Rosh Hashanah and if he had a “good” holiday. When Rav Soloveichik asked his friend to define a “good” holiday, his friend did not know what to answer. Rav Soloveichik explained to him that the goodness of Rosh Hashanah is measured by the degree of exultation and ecstasy which one achieves in his prayer. A “good” Rosh Hashanah means a day in which one has prayed with ecstasy and rapture, a day in which one feels that he has taken even one step closer to his Maker, to G-d Almighty.

Continuing down this path, let’s take a closer look at the people who stand ready to enter into the covenant with Hashem. While impossible to deduce via the English translation, the Hebrew words for “leaders”, “elders”, and “officers” are all in the plural, in that these people belong to the many. For instance, the Torah uses the word “rashei’chem” – leaders of the many – instead of “rashei’cha” – leaders of one person. However, when the Torah talks about the “stranger”, the “wood-cutter”, and the “water-carrier”, it reverts to the singular, as if to say that these people belong, as it were, to one single entity. I propose that the “owner” of the stranger, the wood-cutter, and the water-carrier, is Hashem. To paraphrase Rav Soloveichik, the wood-cutter and the water-carrier are two types of strangers who want to take one step closer to Hashem in order to be included in His covenant.

The Haftarah for Yom Kippur begins with the words [Isaiah 57:14] “Pave, pave, clear the way; remove the obstacles from the way of My people”. Repentance is a long and arduous road. Obstacles are not relegated to certain parts of the path. There is no guarantee that once a person has reached a certain spiritual status that it is clear sailing the rest of the way. Each step on the way to repentance must be cleared from obstacles and paved. The wood-cutter and the water-carrier represent two poles in the path to repentance. The Torah has traditionally been likened to water[6]. Like water, the Torah is an indispensable source of life. Leveraging this metaphor, we can liken the water-carrier to the person who has reached the source of water, while the wood-cutter is still “lost in the woods”.

The wood-cutter is the person who has come to the realization that his life is empty and lacks meaning. He is certain that there must be more to life than a good job, a nice car, and a yearly trip to Europe with the wife and child. The wood-cutter has heard, maybe from his religious friends, maybe at a Chabad House, that there is water to be found, and he knows that he must blaze his own path to the source of the water. He takes things one step at a time, perhaps taking upon himself mitzvot that do not require significant effort or lifestyle change. He still eats cheeseburgers, but he makes a blessing before and after eating one.

The water-drawer has already found the water source[7]. He leads an overtly religious lifestyle. He attends a weekly shiur, he goes to minyan fairly regularly and maybe he even serves on the shul board. He still does not keep all six hundred and thirteen mitzvot pedantically but he keeps a large majority of them as best as he can. He feels that he has reached a comfortable spiritual modus vivendi. He believes that he can throttle back and take things easy. No need in becoming a religious zealot, he thinks. Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi, writing in “Torah Or”, offers a radical explanation of the verse [Isaiah 12:3] “You shall draw water with joy from the fountains of the salvation”[8]. A person should not think for a minute that when he reaches the fountain that the water will be easily accessible. It is not sufficient to merely go to the water. If you want the water, you’re going to have to dig for it. The water is there, but it’s in a cistern, buried deep under the ground, waiting to be drawn to the surface. If you really want to access this water, then you’re going to have to get your hands dirty. You’re going to have to make sacrifices, in time, money, and effort. The water-drawer is being asked to recognize that even as he is drawing water, his journey is not yet complete, nor will it ever be. He must also take another step closer to his Maker.

So we stand before Hashem, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, our wood-cutters and our water-drawers, every man of Israel, ready to reaffirm the covenant that we entered so long ago.


Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Freida.

[1] As far as the Torah is concerned, a lumberjack is just barely “OK”.

[2] The Seforno brings a number of similar examples in the Torah to buttress his thesis, including Shemot [22:3] “From an ox to a sheep”.

[3] As we discussed in our shiur of Chaye Sarah 5777, carrying water is actually one of the more difficult forms of physical labour.

[4] Parashat Nitzavim serves as a buffer between the tochecha – admonition – read in Parashat Ki Tavo, and Rosh Hashanah.

[5] Noraos HaRav [13:1]

[6] See the Talmud in Tractate Bava Kama [82a].

[7] The water-drawer did not necessarily start out as a wood-cutter. I had the luck of being born to an orthodox family and being raised orthodox, and I am also a card-carrying water-drawer.

[8] We discussed this point at length in our shiur of Parashat Noach 5775.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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