Parashat Nitzavim

All-Inclusive Covenant

Moses tells the Children of Israel that the covenant includes all of them, including the pious and faithful as well as the rebellious and confused.

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Provided by CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a multi-denominational think tank and resource center.

In the beginning of Parashat Nitzavim, Moses prepares the Israelites to enter the covenant with God. He declares that the whole community--elders, women, children, strangers--will be part of the covenant, "from your woodchoppers to your water-drawers" (Deuteronomy 29:10).

This is a typical biblical phrase. "From x to y," where x and y represent opposite extremes of a continuum, means "including everyone." Thus "from young to old" or "from the greatest to the smallest" mean "including everyone." Our problem is that woodchoppers and water-drawers are not opposite extremes. Both are menial laborers and neither was highly esteemed. What does the phrase mean?

Perhaps these jobs are meant symbolically rather than literally. Let's free associate. Woodchoppers are literally "choppers of your trees." The image of trees has echoes of the Tree of Life, the Torah. To "chop" such a Tree is to question, or reject Jewish tradition. On the other hand, the image of "water-drawers" is reminiscent of the verse "u-sh'avtem mayim b'sasson...," the promise of Isaiah (12:3), "You shall draw water joyfully from salvation's wells." The image is of one who drinks deeply from the wellsprings of Torah.

Understood this way, Moses is declaring the covenant to be inclusive of all, the pious and the rebellious, the faithful and the confused. The text warns us never to be so complacent about our commitment or devotion, or so sure of our faith, that we see the covenant of Israel as closed to those who are not convinced of its value or sure of its feasibility. Rather we must learn from the later verses of the parashah and approach such Jews with the assurance that the Torah, in its broadest sense, “. . . is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart" (Deuteronomy 30:14).

Rabbi David Nelson

Rabbi David Nelson's rabbinic experience includes five years in a small congregation, fifteen years at CLAL, a think-tank and center for leadership education, five years in a community center, and three years as the primary writer and teacher for the Reform Movement's Israel organization. He is now the campus rabbi and faculty member in Religion at Bard College in upstate New York.