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Parashat Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20)

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deut. 29:29)

Parashat Nitzavim opens with three assertions: the national mission of the Israelites is to enter into a brit, or covenant with God (Deut. 29:11); the brit is binding upon all generations, past, present, and future (Deut. 29:13, 14); and this mission requires the engagement of every member of the community (Deut. 29:9,10). This last declaration testifies to the importance of diversity within the Jewish community and is a prooftext for Jewish pluralism.

Nitzavim describes the entirety of the people: the highest officials and the lowliest laborers; men, women, and children. Its specific identification of woodchoppers and water carriers is puzzling; why them (as opposed to shepherds or weavers or potters)? Rabbi David Nelson (campus rabbi and faculty member in Religion at Bard College) offers one explanation: the Torah is often likened to a tree (of life), or to water (a source of life). A water carrier, then, is a believer who brings Torah to others. A woodchopper, though, is a skeptic who “cuts down” the Torah’s arguments. Suddenly, Nitzavim’s call to action becomes a powerful commentary on inclusion. A community’s strength isn’t measured by the amount of agreement. It is measured by the room it makes for disagreement.

This attitude is reflected in the contents of the Talmud, which scrupulously documents and preserves the disagreements between the different rabbinic schools of thought. Opposing perspectives aren’t merely tolerated, they are honored. The Talmud acts out Nitzavim’s imperative: sincere engagement with divergent opinions bring us together as a people. Nitzavim is a useful reminder: disagreement doesn’t have to divide us. In fact, can make us whole.

Gut Shabbos/Gut Yohr/Shabbat Shalom/Shana Tova

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