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August 29, 2013 - Image 115

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2013-08-29

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Parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Deuter-
onomy 29:9-31:30; Isaiah 61:10-63:9.


his week's Torah portion
begins by listing those who
were present when the Torah
was given at Mount Sinai. Included in
this list are hewers of wood and carriers
of water, groups seemingly out of place
with the more prominent chieftains,
elders, judges and the great men of Israel.
Why single out and include
these ostensibly lowly indi-
viduals and give them pride
of place alongside the leaders
of Israel?
Multiple explanations come
to mind. Most obviously, per-
haps, the Bible seldom shies
away from an opportunity
to speak out on behalf of the
downtrodden. Indeed, hewers
of wood and carriers of water
have, for centuries, epitomized
servitude and degradation,
among Jewish and non-Jewish readers of
the Hebrew Bible alike.
Writing in 1838, for example, former
President Andrew Jackson invoked this
very phrase in his critique of and warn-
ing against the widening economic gap
between a corrupt commercial elite and
everyone else: "All who wish to hand
down to their children that happy repub-
lican system bequeathed to them by their
revolutionary fathers, must now take a
stand against this consolidating, corrupt-
ing money power and put it down or their
children will become hewers of wood and
carriers of water to this aristocratic rago-
cracy [sic]:'
For Jackson, these downtrodden indi-
viduals epitomized enslavement and the
mistreatment of society's lower strata.
For other commentators, the labor
performed by hewers of wood and car-
riers of water was itself virtuous. Rabbi
David Kimchi (aka RaDaK), comment-
ing on Joshua sentencing the Gibeonites
to be the Israelites' hewers of wood and
carriers of water in perpetuity, noted
how this punishment eventually led
the condemned Gibeonites into a noble
As long as the Children of Israel were
encamped and not living on their appor-
tioned land, the Gibeonites served them
as hewers of wood and carriers of water;
but after every Israelite settled in his
towns and on his land, they remained on
as hewers of wood and carriers of water
for God in the Tabernacle:'
Maimonides, too, underscored this

sense of virtue in his code of law: A per-
son should always bear hardship rather
than make himself a burden on the com-
munity ... Even a distinguished sage who
becomes poor should involve himself in a
productive occupation — even a degrad-
ing one — rather than appeal to the com-
munity for assistance.
"There were great sages
who were hewers of wood,
porters of beams, water-
carriers for gardens and
iron-smelters and makers of
charcoal, but they did not ask
anything from the community,
nor did they accept gifts that
were given to them:'
Most telling perhaps is the
fact the Bible includes hew-
ers of wood and carriers of
water as a means of clarifying
a seemingly extraneous term
from the verse before: You are all standing
at Sinai (atem nitzvim hayon kulchem).
Lest there be any doubt that all of Israel
participated in this transcendent experi-
ence, and lest some claim that certain
Israelites experienced Sinai more than
others, the Torah juxtaposes those regard-
ed as society's lowest rung with the social
and political elite. All of Israel participate
in the covenant equally, menial workers
side-by-side with sages and leaders.
Some commentators carried this
notion of equality a step further. The
16th-century kabbalist Moshe Alshich
of Safed, commenting on the Talmud's
description of heaven as "a topsy-turvy
world, the upper class underneath and
the lower on top' (Olam hafuch ra'iti,
`elyonim lemata ve-tachtonim le-ma'ala),
insisted that the perception of leader and
sage being superior to wood-hewer or
water-drawer is a earthly point of view ...
but "when all stand before God, there is
no higher and no lower; what seems low
here, is no less lofty and significant there:'
God does not see anyone as lowly,
least of all menial laborers. As the High
Holidays approach and Jews stand before
God in the synagogue, it is useful to note
a certain similarity between Jews of all
stripes standing in great numbers side-by-
side before God in the synagogue, await-
ing Divine judgment and looking forward
to a happy and healthy new year. ❑

Wayne State University Professor Howard

N. Lupovitch is director of the Cohn-

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Haddow Center for Judaic Studies at WSU.

August 29 • 2013


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