אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם רָאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ טַפְּכֶ֣ם
נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם וְגֵ֣רְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֑יךָ מֵחֹטֵ֣ב עֵצֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד שֹׁאֵ֥ב מֵימֶֽיךָ׃ (דברים כט:ט-י)
“You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the people of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer.”
“And there we were all in one place, A generation lost in space, With no time left to start again.”
The prophet McClean was both right and wrong.
We were indeed there in one place, but we have exactly the time to start again.
We were all there standing together ready to enter into the covenant with our God. The heads of our communities, the committee chairs and board members, the “nones”, and the activists.
All of us, the intellectuals and the simple folk, the strangers, immigrants, converts. The construction workers and the poets, the high-tech whizzes and the Luddites. Young and old, millennials, Gen Z, and boomers, all there to reaffirm our collective past in order to build for a joint future.
The opening verses of Parshat Nitzavim are a wonderful way to lead into Rosh HaShanah and the transition from one year to the next. It is really the perfect message for us to stand together as an entire people, a nation, and a collective to seek forgiveness, to repent, and to renew our joint covenant with God – not as individuals but, in fact, with all people – “with those who are standing here with us this day before Adonai our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”(Deut. 29:14).
But many have trouble identifying as a collective, as a People and a Nation. We are a faith-based group some say, emphasizing the religious aspect, and in the age of rampant individualism “I” bear no responsibility for anyone outside of my value and belief circle, and certainly have no need to identify with a different demographic.
Yet as Moses winds down his epic 34-chapter long speech (save for the last 8 verses) he veers outside the predictable and includes the entire spectrum of financial, intellectual and social classes of the Israelites. The choppers of wood and carriers of water also become part of the aggregate. Without them, there is no collective.
But who are these woodchoppers and water carriers?
Rather than seeing these two types as simple blue-collar workers, the Midrash offers us an insight that includes historic Israel, the people of past, present, and future.
According to one interpretation, the woodchopper is none other than Avraham Avinu – our first patriarch and the founder of our nation. When Avraham was commanded by God to bring his son Isaac as an offering the text tells us that, “He (Abraham) chopped the wood for the offering,” (Genesis 22:3).
And the water carrier is none other than Elijah the prophet, who according to the book of Kings is depicted as the one who draws forth water (Kings I 8:44). When Elijah challenged the prophets of the idol Baal versus the prophet of God (י-ה-ו-ה) at Mount Carmel he instructed, “Fill up four jugs with water and pour them out upon the whole burnt offering.“
From this perspective, the Midrash provides a fascinating insight into Moses’ formulation using two identifiers “from the choppers of wood to the drawers of water” as a short-hand method of saying from Avraham, the chopper of wood, to Elijah, the one who drew forth the water; from the founder of our nation charged with the mission that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you” until the very last Jew prior to Messianic times, of whom it is said, “Behold, I am sending you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of Adonai.” (Malakhi 3:23)
This is Moses establishing a covenant with the whole of Jewish history, from its inception with the founder of ethical monotheism until its culmination at the realization of a world of peace.
With all the calls for unity in the Jewish world, this singular message from Deuteronomy is of critical importance as we approach the new year.
With the Israeli political system lacking inspiration at the moment or hope for a sound resolution to a coalition forming impasse, and disenchantment with organized Jewish life reaching new heights let us look to our collective strength as a way to renew our days.
In figures published ahead of the Jewish new year, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported that the country’s 6.744 million Jews make up 74.2 percent of its total population. The Jewish Agency reported that 8.1 million Jews live outside Israel, with the largest population of 5.7 million Jews in the United States. With growth rates as they are, in just a few years there will be more Jews in Israel than the rest of the world.
Yet, today it feels as if the two largest Jewish communities have little in common (to put it lightly), and at times are diametrically opposed to one another.
In his recently published book, “Divided We Stand,” Rabbi Daniel Gordis explores the notion that America and Israel are fundamentally different enterprises with opposing missions and values provoking a potentially irreconcilable rift between American and Israeli Jews.
“The values and priorities of Zionism are diametrically opposed to many of the values that have made America the extraordinary country it is,” writes Gordis. And in his conclusion, he essentially proposes terms of a cold peace. Both sides should temper their resentment and rhetoric, he says, and avoid asking the other to “do the impossible.”
This is not bad advice, but it aims too low.
It certainly does not reflect the notion that we are all in this together standing before our God to renew our covenant and that we all have a stake in the future. Before reading Gordis (which you should), read Deuteronomy, because maybe we can aspire to more than just mutual toleration?
Maybe this year American Jews can look at Israel not with resentment as Hebrew speaking tribalistic nationalists with no end in sight to the conflict with its neighbors?
And, maybe Israelis can look at American Jews not as assimilationist universalists bereft of national and collective responsibility who are destined to disappear by the next generation?
Maybe this year we can learn from each other’s experiences and successes?
This year let American Jews look at Israel as the success story of combining an all-encompassing approach to Jewish life including peoplehood, Torah, sovereignty, strength and geography. The success of creating a Jewish public life deeply rooted in text and tradition evolving and contributing creatively to a modern Hebrew culture.
And, this year may Israelis come to see Jewish life in America as a story of survival and thriving where Jewish community is created and built from the ground up, in a privatized economy where religious and communal life is not dependent on the State, and where self-sustaining communities are dependent on the investment and preservation of their members.
We should not ignore each other’s failures and deep-seated problems, but also develop a sense of mutual appreciation.
Whether we are the heads of the communities or the woodcutters and water carriers (which often overlap), we have an opportunity to see ourselves in the continuum of Jewish history from polar extreme to the other. From Avraham to Elijah we stand together to say the popular first-person plural refrain that many of us will chant in synagogues: כִּי אָנוּ עַמֶּךָ וְאַתָּה אֱלֹהֵינוּ – For we are your people and You are our God. Entering 5780 let us reaffirm our commitment to peoplehood and work to make the future better for the people of Israel and the entire world.
And May it be Your will.