Nitzavim – We Are All Wood Choppers

Curiously included among those ‘who stand (nitzavim) before God,’ are the  wood choppers and water drawers (Deuteronomy 29:10), people whose jobs require great physical exertion. Who are these menial laborers? Da’at Zekenim (Tosafot) suggest a variety of interpretations, including that they are the slaves of the Israelites. They also suggest though, that they are the Israelites themselves, in that they are akin to slaves. The Jews are slaves in that they have no choice when it comes to God’s commandments. We are Gods ‘wood choppers and water drawers.’

This is a troubling conceptualization, in that in modern times our relationship to Judaism, practically speaking, is entirely one of personal choice. The notion of religious obligation smacks uncomfortably close to religious coercion.  And yet, the language of mitzvah, commandment, makes the point clear enough. Still, what is the objective of a system which requires us to follow God’s will, as opposed to leaving it to our discretion, and to whether we wish to reap the rewards or not?

I believe the answer lies in what is written two verses later (29:12) in the promise ‘that He will establish you to Him this day as a nation, and that He will be to you as a God.’ In other words, this binding agreement ensures that just as our commitment to God is not optional, neither is God’s commitment to us.  The bond is eternal because it is one of obligation.

I’ve met many individuals who wish to identify as Jews (either for historic or other reasons), without obligating themselves to the mitzvot. While that is their right, it also limits their place among the Jewish people. It is through our binding and obligatory connection, that God, and the rest of the Jewish people, are ultimately bound to us as well. Obligation need not be seen as coercion, but rather, as part of an important state of being that makes our covenantal relationship with God real, lasting, and eternal.


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