Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30)

Rabbi David Stav 

There is something truly unique about the Torah’s description of the Jewish People assembling to experience the sealing of the covenant between the nation and its God, as the Book of Deuteronomy comes to a close.

Our portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech, states: “You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God – the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel; your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp; both your woodcutters and your water drawers, as you enter the covenant of Hashem your God…” [Deut. 29:9-11].

Nowhere else in the Torah can we find a description that drills down to this level, zooming in on the elders and leaders alongside water drawers, and this leaves no room for doubt: this was a truly a one-of-a-kind event, with a level of detail that even surpassed the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

One understanding we may reach is that the Torah attaches great importance to the fact that even the lowliest members of society were there – the woodcutters and the water-drawers – to teach us that deals and covenants aren’t signed only by leaders, as some might think nowadays, and that society must be prepared to honor such agreements. The ruling elite are vital because they chart our course, and they are certainly necessary for shaping public opinion, but they aren’t enough. If the nation isn’t interested in an agreement, it ultimately won’t work.

We now understand why the Torah mentioned all social classes. But what role do the children play in this event? Are they knowledgeable enough to decide whether their parents are doing the right thing? Can they say anything that could add or detract from the experience?

Many drew a parallel between bringing the children to this gathering to bringing them to the “kahal” event, which is held once every seven years.

According to the Torah’s description, during the Sukkot holiday following the end of the Sabbatical year, many would gather at the Holy Temple, where the king would recite the entire Torah, for all to see and hear [ibid., 31:10-13]. The children attended this event as well, and our rabbis tell us that the reason they would come, even though they couldn’t understand what was being said, was to reward the parents who brought them along. In other words, parents would get a “bonus” for dragging along the kids.

Personally, I have a hard time connecting to this explanation. After all, it is pointless to bring the children to the sealing of the covenant, so why drive the parents crazy? Would it not have been better for the parents to hire a babysitter so that they could attend this event, with some peace of mind, and concentrate on the important things they heard there, instead of handing out snacks to their kids to keep them quiet?

Besides, just imagine the scene that played out: hundreds of thousands of toddlers and schoolchildren yelling at the top of their lungs. We would have expected a much more dignified gathering, like the ones we see on television when world leaders meet to sign serious agreements on peace.

Ramban suggests another reason for the children’s attendance: “And [the parent] brought the children there to bring them into the covenant, because [Hashem] is also signing a covenant with the generations of the future.” The children symbolize the direction the covenant is to take. The future: the youth and the babies shrieking in their cribs today are the ones who will lead the nation one day in the future. It is for their sake that we are going through all this trouble.

It is important for us, as parents, to understand that the covenant with Hashem isn’t just a passing fad that we happen to be a part of, by sheer chance. It is a covenant that defines our identity as a nation for all generations to come. It is meant to shape and influence the destinies of those small children who, at this moment, do not understand what their parents are signing. We bring them along as if to tell ourselves that they will be our continuation, and that we are making a commitment not only for ourselves, but also on behalf of future generations.

All of this demonstrates that we are truly convinced that we are doing the best thing for them. Parents that bring their children along to the covenant ceremony are declaring to the rest of the world that this is the right thing for them and their children. It is for good reason that most Jews have circumcision performed on their helpless children, despite the pain involved – because the parent wants to express an unshakeable connection with the Jewish people, its past and its future.

You can be part of a nation without being conscious of its vision, or the substance of that vision. Throughout our history as a nation, millions of Jews have sacrificed their lives to preserve their identity, without even understanding what it meant and why it causes them so much suffering. But that is not a healthy dynamic. When we bring our children along to the covenant ceremony, it is as if we are saying that we, as parents, understand the deep significance of being the nation that signed a covenant with its God, and that we will do everything in our power to transmit the special nature of our national and spiritual identity to our children.

[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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