“Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Water”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Nitzavim is always read on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana, and with good reason. It contains a host of vital lessons that are germane to the High Holidays and relate cogently to the theme of teshuva (repentance).

On the last day of his life, Moses gathers the people of Israel together to renew with them the covenant of G-d for the last time before he passes on.

Moses’ opening words, as recorded in Deuteronomy 29:9, read, “Ah’tem nee’tzavim ha’yom kool’chem lif’nay Hashem Eh’lo’kay’chem, rah’shay’chem, shiv’tay’chem, zik’nay’chem v’shoht’ray’chem, kol eesh Yisrael,” You are standing today, all of you, before the L-rd, your G-d, the heads of your tribes, your elders and your officers–all the men of Israel. In the very next verse (Deuteronomy 29:10) Moses proceeds to name others who stand with the previously named group: your small children, your women, and your proselyte who is in the midst of your camp, “May’cho’tayv ay’tzeh’chah ahd sho’ayv may’meh’chah”–from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) feels that Moses specifically enumerates the hewers of wood and the drawers of water in order to refer to the lowest rung of society. He explains that, just as when the Gibonites in Joshua’s time came to convert to Judaism they were assigned to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, so too in the days of Moses, the Canaanites came desiring to convert to Judaism and were relegated to the lowly position of hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Since Jewish law clearly forbids discrimination against sincere converts to Judaism, the commentators presume that the Canaanites, like the Gibonites, acted with cunning and pretended not to be Canaanites so that the Israelites would enter into a treaty with them. Although Moses saw through their ruse and did not enter into any accord with them, he nevertheless accepted them as converts, but relegated them to perform menial tasks.

The Nachalat Yitzchak quoted by the Iturei Torah notes that the actual wording in the Torah fails to support Rashi’s interpretation. Citing numerous examples from the Bible, he finds difficulty with the expression, “from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water,” since such contrasts are generally intended to indicate a range from someone important to someone unimportant. Such contrast may be seen in the text of Exodus 11:5 that states, “From the firstborn of Pharaoh…until the firstborn of the handmaiden.” What contrast then is there when comparing a hewer of wood to a drawer of water? After all, they both have the same status–at the very bottom of society.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) points out that not all biblical comparisons are from top to bottom. After all, in Genesis 14:23, after defeating the powerful four kings, Abram (his name had not yet been changed to Abraham) says to the king of Sodom, that he will not take “so much as a thread to a shoestring so that you [king of Sodom] shall not say it was I who made Abram rich.” Clearly, Abram refers to two insignificant things without contrasting them.

Nevertheless, it may very well be that by mentioning both the hewers of wood and drawers of water, the Torah, in effect, warns us never to judge people’s true inner worth superficially by their professions or their outward appearances.

During a recent visit to Baltimore, I had occasion to hear a sermon delivered by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in which the rabbi referred to a legendary poster-hanger of Jerusalem who was a rather acclaimed Torah scholar. On one occasion, when Rabbi Gottlieb was walking the streets of Jerusalem, he saw a shabbily-dressed man riding a bicycle loaded with many posters, a big glue jar and brush protruding from the side of the bicycle. He proceeded to watch with fascination as the poster man skillfully glued numerous posters to the Jerusalem bulletin boards. The poster-hanger, noticing that he was being watched by the young man said to the observer, “You’re obviously here because you expect to hear a D’var Torah from me!” The poster-hanger proceeded to give him a rather brilliant explication of that week’s Torah portion, which served as the basis for Rabbi Gottlieb’s Shabbat sermon. The poster-hanger apparently preferred to engage in a profession that required relatively few hours of labor, and provided enough money to feed his family, so that he could focus on his Torah studies without being constantly disturbed or interrupted.

The Iturei Torah cites a beautiful Chassidic story about the Rebbe Rashab of Lubavitch (1860-1920, the 5th Rebbe, Sholom Dovber Schneerson) who was once visited by a wealthy diamond merchant. During the course of conversation, the Lubavitcher Rabbi mentioned several of the simple local people, praising them generously. The wealthy diamond merchant asked the rabbi why he was making such a fuss about these poor people. The Rebbe Rashab answered that these people, despite their impoverishment, have many extraordinary qualities. When the merchant responded, “Unfortunately, I fail to see those qualities,” the rabbi remained silent.

After a while, the rabbi asked the merchant if he had any samples of precious stones to show him. The merchant eagerly displayed his valuable jewels on the table, enthusiastically praising each stone’s beauty and value. The rabbi said to the merchant, “I simply don’t see anything in them!” The merchant responded, “Well, rabbi, you really have to be a maven, an expert, in order to see the beauty of these diamonds.” Said the rabbi to the merchant, “Every Jew is extraordinary, but you have to be a maven to see the beauty in them.”

At this particular juncture in our nation’s history when a seemingly ordinary “hockey mom” of five children, including a Down Syndrome child, from the “obscure” state of Alaska, who has been the state’s governor for only two years, has been nominated by the Republican party to serve as candidate for Vice President of the United States, it behooves us to not judge too quickly. (Please note: No endorsement intended.)

Many of us come into the month of Elul (the Hebrew month that precedes Rosh Hashana), laden with much personal “baggage.” Few of us can regard ourselves as anything other than the lowest of the low, and yet we all hope that by the end of the month of Tishrei we will be seen in G-d’s eyes as priceless diamonds and rubies. This is the hope that we harbor, that the Divine Expert and Maven will see in us the glow of the beautiful endowments that He implanted in us at the time of creation, and cherish us more then ever.

Wishing you a very happy and healthy New Year. May we merit to see peace prevail in our homes and throughout the entire world.

May you be blessed.

This year, Rosh Hashana will be observed from Monday evening, September 29th through Wednesday night, October 1st, 2008.