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Tish Talk by Rabbi Shalom Rubanowitz Nitzavim-Vayelech


Dear Friends,

Back” after weeks of exhilarating, physically challenging, yet simultaneously refreshing and restful “off time”, I thought I would have trouble “funneling” my experiences into a message on the Parasha appropriate for your Pre-Rosh Hashana Tish. So wrong I was. Just two verses into my review of this week’s double-Parashah today’s Tish Talk jumped right up at me! The ground-breaking idea I wish to share with you (I have yet to see any commentary go in this direction) surrounds the Torah’s description of all the people “standing” together on Moses’ last day on earth, too “Pass into the Covenant” with Hashem. Here is the text:

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,

טאַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י הֹ אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֑ם רָֽאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

10your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water,  יטַפְּכֶ֣ם נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם וְגֵ֣רְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַֽחֲנֶ֑יךָ מֵֽחֹטֵ֣ב עֵצֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד שֹׁאֵ֥ב מֵימֶֽיךָ:

11that you may enter the covenant of the Lord, your God, and His oath, which the Lord, your God, is making with you this day,

יאלְעָבְרְךָ֗ בִּבְרִ֛ית הֹ אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּבְאָֽלָת֑וֹ אֲשֶׁר֙ הֹ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כֹּרֵ֥ת עִמְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם:

Thus, after literally specifying that every “person of Israel” was standing there in this “final rededication and contract signing ceremony” of commitment to Hashem and the Torah and Eretz Yisrael, including men, women, children, all those that converted, -everyone!, the Torah decides to also mentions two categories of professions: “from the wood choppers to the water carriers”.  

Aside from the curious fact that doctors, lawyers or accountants did not make it to the list, the odd choice of these particular type of tradespeople cries out for an explanation. Rashi does not let this go unnoticed (offering the suggestion that this refers to certain Canaanite “convert wannabees” who were offered these jobs as a precondition to their affiliation with Israel) but I was always left with the feeling that there is a much deeper idea embedded in these oddly described “congregants”. After all, the Torah is presenting one of most monumental moments of extraordinary significance.

Yes, every type of Jew was included in the gathering, but the only “hyper-sub-category” mentioned are the Jewish Paul Bunyons and  the Yankel Water carriers”. Would it not have sufficed to leave them as part of the generally inclusive phrases earlier in the Passuk” (All of Israel…). What is it about wood choppers and water carriers? And furthermore, why are these categories listed at the end, as if water carriers and wood choppers are a general “catch all” substitute for everyone? Finally, why does the Torah describe them as opposites, saying “From” the wood chopper “To” the water carrier?  The use of the words “From” and “To” imply  that there is spectrum-length inclusion from one end to the other, as if to say that Moshe gathered everyone, from the “lowly wood chopper to the lofty water carrier”. But on the spectrum, are these two really so far apart on life’s spectrum? Does this make sense?

Herein lies my Chiddush of this week. Maybe the answer lies in the difference between these two “professions”. This concept was highlighted during recent visit to the Redwood National and State Parks just a few weeks ago. This summer’s adventure with the kids to the California coastal Redwoods taught me much about the world we live in-a world we know about, but don’t always “see”. These Redwoods, the world’s tallest trees, currently occupy about 139,000 acres right in our “front yard” adjacent to the coastal waters of California and Oregon. Before commercial logging and clearing began in the 1850s however, coast redwoods occupied an estimated 2 million acres along California’s coast from south of Big Sur to just over the Oregon border.

Thus, while the water flowed and raged “next door” in the mighty oceans, lakes, and rivers nearby without abatement, modern-day “wood choppers” cleared out most of these magnificent trees, relics of a bygone era.

Thinking about this, it hit me: We humans might be labelled as either wood choppers or water carriers.  The wood chopper is the person who cuts down, appropriates, destroys, and takes what he needs-and maybe more, never to return that item back or allow its regrowth. Water carriers on the other hand, bring us a natural resource that we consume, yes, but also one that always finds its way back to its source, back to others, back to its glorified place of origin, finding itself transformed, adaptive, reborn and re-utilized. Water might start in the ocean, rise to the heavens, transport itself down again to our wells, rivers, “Shtetls…all on the backs of the water carriers who take glorious part in this process of ongoing life.

As beneficiaries of Hashem’s bounty and inheritors of this earth, we find ourselves as both wood chopper and water carrier, and our challenge is-how will we allow ourselves to be labelled? Sometimes we have to cut, burn, consume, even destroy-as we endeavor to build a greater good, a heaven on earth. Too often however, we let that drive to build our “house” overcome our realization that its really our soul that needs the real building. Sometimes, we get lucky enough to serve as “water carrier”. To share and give, not to take, destroy and consume. If we are lucky, we get to see how our efforts bear fruit throughout the world and return right back to us in even greater grandeur. Too often however our time in that role is too limited, too short. Regardless of where life carries us and the role we find ourselves in, the real question is, with which “profession” do we identify?  Who do we stand with? Do we want to be associated with the taker, the grabber, the devourer and the interloper, or the giver, the deliverer, the sharer, the grower?

I think the Torah is laying this challenge out before us. Moshe our 40-year leader is about to leave us, we are about to enter the Land of Israel and claim it as the new capital of the world. We are about to “inherit the earth”, turn it into a literal home for the divine presence. Hashem, recognizing our limitations and the challenges we will be facing in this daunting but worthy mission, Moshe wants to make sure we have the tools we need, the guidance we seek. Our desert sojourn has shown us how easily we can get off track. So Moshe gathers us together to remind us of the resources we have-the Covenant, the Torah, a code of values-along with encouragement that we will be able to make the right choice and “identification” so that ultimately we will end up as the water carriers, not the wood choppers.  

With this idea in hand, the first verses in our Parasha come to new life. Moshe gathers all of us, from the greatest amongst us to the simplest, ending off by saying: “I understand that you are all facing a dauting challenge. Who will you end up as? Penina Bunyon, or Schprintza the Water Carrier? I guarantee you, that if you stick with the covenant, if you adhere to the Torah’s moral code to guide you in your holy mission of conquering the earth, you may start off as a lowly “wood chopper, a “taker”, a destroyer,  but in the end you will be transformed  into a lofty  “water carrier, a giver, a builder. Aligning with Hashem in your earthly activities will ensure that no matter where you start, you will evolve into greatness, going “From” even the lowest form of survival-the desire for self-serving material dominance, to the highest form of existence- a life devoted to growth of your soul  and the spirits of all around you.


On this Shabbos, with its double message of “Nitzavm”, which means “standing”, and Vayelech”, which means to “Move”, to “Go”, I wish each and every one of you a Shabbos, and upcoming year of growth and transformation, where regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in, we find the higher ground, meriting the showering and raining down upon us Hashem’s endless bounty in and on every aspect of our lives. Lord knows, we need it!  

Shabbat Shalom Umevorach,  a peaceful , meaningful and HEALTHY Shabbos to all! 

Shalom Rubanowitz, at the "Shul on the Beach", Venice, California.

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