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Home » Free Choice, Nitzavim

Nitzavim: Get Out Of Jail

Submitted by on September 24, 2016 – 11:18 pmNo Comment | 5,496 views

Two Poles

The Torah section that we read each year on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, begins with the words “You all stand this day before the Lord, your God, the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young ones, your women, and your convert who is within your camp from your woodcutters to your water-drawers.” On the day of judgement, everyone stands equally before G-d.

Notice a discrepancy. All ten stations mentioned in this verse are listed simply, but the last two are presented in a somewhat different fashion. Rather than stating, woodcutters and water-drawers, the Torah changes style and writes, “From your woodcutters to your water-drawers.” The words from – to connote two poles. From top to bottom, from east to west, from beginning to end. It tells us that the woodcutters and water-drawers are not the two lowest stations among Jews as the surface meaning implies. They are two separate polls. The wood cutters on one pole and the water-drawers on the other.

Get Out OF Jail

Imagine a prison that allows its prisoners a free pass should they choose to use it. Everyone is handed a free get out of jail card and should they present it to the warden, they are set free.

G-d provides His children with a get out jail card called Teshuva – repentance or return. When we turn our backs on G-d and commit sin, we are in the doghouse to borrow a crude term. But we can get out at any time. All we need to do is remind the warden that we are G-d’s children. The royal prince doesn’t belong in the doghouse. He is set free.

But how did the royal prince land up in the doghouse? It happened when he stopped acting like a royal prince. When we act like commoners, we are treated like commoners. How do we remind the warden that we are royal princes? Simple, we start acting like one.

This explains why more of us don’t use our get out of jail card. If it is so easy to get out, why are so many of us still in? Why do we keep returning to our indolent and sinful ways? Because using this card entails a lifestyle change and it isn’t easy. Sure it sounds simple. Show your get out of jail card and leave. But in reality it isn’t a matter of presenting a card. It’s a matter of acting like a prince.

Wood Cutters

There are two ways to return to the behavior of a royal prince. One is the way of the wood cutter the other is the way of the water-drawer and they are two poles, the bottom up pole and the top down pole. Let us first explore the wood cutter, the bottom up pole.

The woodcutter sets aside time for self-reflection and realizes his own paucity. I stood before G-d and turned my back on him. I opted for transient shallow pleasures and eschewed eternal holy gifts. I held infinity in the palm of my hand and I hurled it away to opt for folly. How low, I have fallen. How insignificant and unimportant, I have become. I am decadent and sinful. Before G-d, I am worthless and undeserving. As Pharaoh said when he finally confessed, “G-d is righteous… and I am wicked.”[1]

This is consistent with woodcutting because the Zohar compares this process of self-effacement to cutting wood. “A wooden beam that doesn’t catch fire should be splintered and it will catch, similarly a body into which the light of the soul doesn’t penetrate should be splintered.”[2]

The woodcutter cuts his own ego down to size and recognizes his own lowliness. Once he sees it, he is open to the value of the infinite. He becomes a true penitent; prepared to implement sincere and lasting change. This is the dialectic of Teshuva – complete return to G-d and utter repentance from sin.

It is an arduous and humbling process. It crushes our self-image and remakes us in a new light. It is ultimately rewarding, but the process takes a heavy toll. It casts a withering pall of gloom that few can withstand. It is little wonder that few issue this get out of jail card. It is a costly maneuver.


Fortunately there is another option – that of the water-drawer. The water-drawer doesn’t focus on the negative. The water-drawer draws water, the more the merrier. If we are grimy with sin, the water-drawer drenches us in water. Water is a cleansing agent, the more we pour, the cleaner we are.

The Torah refers to itself as water. “Oh, all who are thirsty go to the water.”[3] Our sages understood this verse as speaking to those who are thirsty for Torah and the prophet exhorts us not to be lazy and not to deny ourselves. If you are thirsty for G-d, if you seek a closer relationship with Him, if you find yourself mired in sin, wallowing in a doghouse and wanting to get out, all you need to do, is go to the water.

Study more and more Torah. The more you study, the closer you are drawn to G-d. The more water you drink, the more you cleanse your body, the more water you pour, the more you rinse your garments, the more Torah you learn, the holier you will be. As our sages put it, “if a person commits a sin, what shall he do? If he is accustomed to learning one page of Torah he should learn two, if he is accustomed to studying one chapter he should study two.” If the ugly one (evil inclination) accosts you, draw him into the study hall. If he is made of stone he will melt as it is written,” He who is thirsty shall go to water” because even, “Stones are worn down by water.”[4]

The more Torah we pour over our sin-encrusted hearts, the more it will melt. As waters wear down a stone, so will Torah wear down our resistance and open our hearts to G-d. Water cleanses, water breaks down, water melts and this is the second way. The woodcutter focuses on cutting his ego down to size so the soul’s light will catch. The water-drawer doesn’t focus on his own paucity; he focuses on the light. Darkness flees before light. Once we are bathed in the light of Torah, our inner darkness is driven away. We respond to the beckoning warmth that summons us and the sins melt away. Eventually, the light will catch. Eventually, the ego, of its own volition, will break down. Eventually, we will return.

Whether we arrive as woodcutters, from the bottom up, or as water-drawers from the top down, on Rosh Hashanah, we all arrive. We stand equally before G-d. From east to west, from top to bottom, from woodcutter to water-drawer and every shade in between, may we all be granted a healthy and happy new year.[5]

[1] Exodus 9:27.

[2] Zohar III 168a. See Tanya chapter 29.

[3] Isaiah 55:1.

[4] Tana D’bei Elieyahu. Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin: 30b. Isaiah 55:1. Job 14:19.

[5] This essay is culled from L’torah U’lmoadim, Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin’s commentary on this verse.

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