Friday, 23 September 2011

Water-Carriers and All

I contributed this week’s Masorti Reflection on the Parasha.

Cross posted from


Shabbat Nitzavim - Vayelekh


If you are reading this, in Shul or on-line, congratulations. You are one of the elite; preparing for the major celebrations of the coming days by engaging in Jewish life and study. In less than a week’s time we will be joined by a goodly number of Jews who have been preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by …. well they won’t have been preparing themselves for Rosh Hashanah at all.


I remember once passing a Shtibel – a little basement Synagogue – on New York's Upper West Side on the Shabbat immediately before Rosh Hashanah just as one of the daveners emerged from their Shabbat morning service. We chatted, ‘How many people did you get today?’ I asked, ‘Oh, about seventy,’ came the response. ‘And how many will you get on Rosh Hashanah?’ I asked. ‘Oh, about seventy,’ came the response. It took a while for me to understand what he meant. Then I realised, it’s the kind of community where everybody always comes. They have about seventy people on the first Shabbat in March, the third Wednesday morning in April or the second Tuesday afternoon in May.


It would be easy, as ‘one of the elite’ slipping into our regular seat on Shabbat Nitzavim-Vayelekh, to feel that Rosh Hashanah belongs to us. We are the regular attenders and the Talmud frequently teaches ben tadir v’aray tadir maadif, -between regular and occasional, regular is preferred. But that would be a terrible error, especially in the run up to Rosh Hashanah. These are the opening words of the parasha read the week before Rosh Hashanah - ‘You are standing here today, all of you, before God, your bosses, tribes, wise leaders, officers, everyone of Israel, your children, your wives, your strangers; from wood cutter to drawer of water so you can enter into the covenant.’ (Deut 29:10-11).

For the most important moments in our national history and in yearly calendar we stand together, wood-cutters and elite alike. The machers and the twice a year attendees are deemed equally necessary for the success of the covenantal relationship between God and the Children of Israel. The same is true of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. How could we pray, in the words of the Kol Nidrei, ‘alongside the sinners,’ if we were all perfect (a fine hope that). The language of mutual responsibility shared by an entire people before God infuses so much of the liturgy of the upcoming days, from the Zichronot verses of Rosh Hashanah to the confessional recitations of Yom Kippur. We are all in this together.

So my request to the elite, reading this, is this - watch out for the wood-carriers and the water drawers, come Thursday morning. Wish them a Shanah Tovah, introduce yourself, make sure they feel comfortable in your community, even if you have never seen them before. This covenant, these coming days, are for us all.

Shabbat Shalom and a sweet and good year to all.

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