In the beginning of Parashat Nitzavim, Moses asserts that all of the community will enter into the covenant with God. He continues with a list of all those present, in descending order of social status, ending with menial laborers, represented here by the woodcutters and water drawers. The mention of these specific workers has aroused the interest of commentators through the generations. Are these merely two similar examples and is there also some deeper meaning? In the former case, we are talking about simple, unlearned folk, at the bottom of the social pyramid. Rabbi Baruch of Medzhybizh* teaches that the whole of the community is greater than the sum of its parts, and although each Israelite might be flawed, all together their strengths and good qualities are magnified. The message then is that each individual member of the community is personally committed to the Covenant (not through the action of someone superior) and that each is equally worthy. Chassidic lore abounds with stories in praise of poor and simple folk who are valued as much as their wealthier, more learned peers.
The Nachalat Yitchak** commentary on the phrase “mechotev etsecha ad sho’ev maymecha – [literally] from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water,” notes that whenever we see “from…to,” the meaning is from the greatest of the great to the smallest of the small. He brings several proof texts (as in Shemot 11:5, “From Pharaoh’s firstborn to the firstborn of the maidservant,” and others). So the Nachalat Yitzchak wonders what is the distance here between the woodcutter and the water drawer – as both of them are ostensibly of equal status. He suggests, in the name of Rabbi Meir Shenipsker** who cites the Sifrei,*** that although the month of Elul is a time of grace for repentance, more so than the rest of the year, it is hinted here that one shouldn’t even wait until Elul proper but rather try to repent early, from halfway through Av. This is derived from the Talmud (Ta’anit 31) regarding Tu be’Av – the fifteenth – or halfway through Av). This is the implication of “from your woodcutters” – because on 15th Av the time that the cutting of the wood for the main altar in the Temple was completed for the year. Significantly, this is when the nights – traditionally the ideal time for Torah study – lengthen again after the summer solstice, permitting more study. It is taught that increased Torah learning should intensify repentance and good deeds. As to “until your water drawers,” we learn that this refers to Hoshana Rabba which marks the end of the water drawing and water libation ceremonies (which took place during the intermediate days of Sukkot). Hoshana Rabba is traditionally the last day one can still alter the verdict for the New Year.
An interesting idea is raised by Rabbi David Nelson in an article on Nitzavim entitled, An All-inclusive Covenant, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Bible/Weekly_Torah_Portion/nitzavim_clal.shtml. He notes that when Moses lists the categories of people, we find most can be sorted into pairs of opposites: young/old; men/women; leaders/strangers. The menial workers – water drawers and woodcutters do not seem like opposites – both were menial, not highly-regarded workers. Rabbi Nelson suggests that we free-associate. “Perhaps these jobs are meant symbolically rather than literally. Woodchoppers are literally “choppers of your trees.” The image of trees has echoes of the Tree of Life, the Torah. To “chop” such a Tree is to question, or reject Jewish tradition. On the other hand, the image of “water-drawers” is reminiscent of the verse “u-sh’avtem mayim b’sasson mima’ayanei ha’yeshua – you shall draw water joyfully from the wellsprings of salvation.” (Isaiah 12:3). The image is of one who drinks deeply from the wellsprings of Torah.” Rabbi Nelson concludes, “Understood this way, Moses is declaring the covenant to be inclusive of all, the pious and the rebellious, the faithful and the confused. The text warns us never to be so complacent about our commitment or devotion, or so sure of our faith, that we see the covenant of Israel as closed to those who are not convinced of its value or sure of its feasibility. Rather we must learn from the later verses of the parashah and approach such Jews with the assurance that the Torah, in its broadest sense, “… is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart.” (Devarim 30:14).
Dr Aviad HaCohen, in a D’var Torah on Parashat Nitzavim from 2005 http://www.kipa.co.il/jew/pash/85/7049.html, brings a variation on the contrast between woodcutter and water drawer. He cites various commentators: the S’forno who says there is a hierarchy in every society so even in this lowest social stratum, there is a pecking order, “from the first of the woodcutters to the last of the water drawers.” Rashi and Ramban believe that these were Canaanites who came to convert in the days of Moses and even though they were yesterday’s “other”, having accepted the covenant, they came to stand before God with all of Israel. However, Dr HaCohen quoting his late uncle Rabbi Shmuel Avidor in his book, Likrat Shabbat, suggests that there is an important difference between the work of these two laborers. The woodcutter, he says, uproots and destroys, damaging Nature and its beauty. The water drawer brings up water from the deep springs, which nurtures man, as well as the flora and fauna. He adds that even the body movements of the two laborers is significant. Whereas the woodcutter bends away from the tree as he increases the power of the blow, the water drawer bends forwards towards the well or spring as he tries to bring living water to nourish the world. Dr HaCohen concludes that the difference then, is not one of stature but of essence. The former represents those who would destroy and uproot, while the latter represents those who nurture and enhance the world. Both, he says, come before God on the Day of Judgment and must give an accounting of their actions.
*Rabbi Baruch of Medzhybizh (1753–1811), was a grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. He was the first major “rebbe” of the Chassidic movement to hold court in Medzhybizh in his grandfather’s hometown and Beit Midrash, which he inherited.
R’ Baruch was known for his melancholy, fiery temper, and uncompromising strong will. His teachings were the subject of great debate among the Chassidic leadership of his generation. He was the first Chassidic leader to accumulate great wealth from his devotees through the practice of petek and pidyonot. In other words, he obtained donations and gifts for personal requests or prayers. He claimed to his followers that he had supernatural powers derived directly from his blood-connection to the Baal Shem Tov. His followers numbered in the thousands when he died.
**Nachalat Yitchak, Rabbi Meir Shenipsker are both cited in Itturei Torah, on this verse. I cannot find any information about either.
***The Sifrei refers to classical Jewish Biblical exegesis, based on the biblical books of Bamidbar and Devarim.