Parashat Nitzavim/Rosh Ha-shanah
This Torah reading is always read right before the New Year. It is the first of the last four Torah portions left in our Torah. After the lengthy and impressive unfolding of the entire Torah, each of these last Torah portions is very short. In comparison to the previous portions, these are like small tidbits of text. It is as if, after a full year of feasting on the amazingly rich nourishment of the Torah’s banquet, we still sit at the table, satiated and yet unable to resist nibbling just a few more delicious bites from the leftovers on the table. Just four more small bites before the meal is really over!
A verse and a phrase that I keep nibbling on is at the start of the Torah portion, when Moses explains that the Torah is a covenantal responsibility of everyone of Israel: “You stand here today – all of you – before the Eternal your Almighty God…. all of Israel, including your children, and the stranger among you, and from the chopper of your wood to the drawer of your water.” (Deut. 29:9-10) And I have often wondered – who are “the chopper of your wood” and who is “the drawer of your water.” Is there any essential difference between these two hard laborers? (For previous discussions, see Sparks, Nitzavim, for 2011, 2016 and 2019)
There is. The wood chopper takes from the world, from Nature, by breaking it apart. The tree is felled and cut into pieces. The process creates a void, an absence, and leaves behind shattered remains.
But those who draw water make no apparent mark on the water from which they take their portion. The water is all of a piece with its source. Drawing the water can seem to be an act of withdrawing without leaving a gap or a sense of loss. It may be no coincidence that this is the image for joy and redemption that we offer every Saturday night at the end of Shabbat: “May you draw waters in joyousness from the wellsprings of salvation!” (Isa. 12:3)
These two ways of taking from Nature have been with us from the beginning. We have needed to break nature into manageable pieces and use those pieces to build new structures. And we have been blessed to be able to enjoy life-giving resources like water, air and light, that seem endlessly available to us. The Torah is meant to guide us in all the ways we interact with our world, whether through active transformation such as wood-chopping or through passive enjoyment such as water-drawing.
Yet, the Torah from start to finish has warned us that our responsibility to God entails a great responsibility to take good care of God’s earth. When drawing water becomes a process of destruction, when it becomes aligned with chopping down every tree and forest, then the covenant is destroyed as the world burns up and dries up. Do we really need to devour every last tidbit of the Earth’s feast, until “the thirsty and the parched are swept away”? (Deut. 29:18)
The New Year approaches. The time is ticking away.
Shabbat Shalom – Shanah Tovah!
Rabbi David Greenstein
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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein
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