I. “From the choppers of your wood to those who draw your water”

Parshat Nitzavim

Parshat Nitzavim is a continuation of Moses’ warnings and imprecations to the Jewish Nation as it prepares for his departure and its conquest of Eretz Israel.

The Parsha opens with the famous words; Atem nitzavim ha-yom kulhem lifney Ado-nai Elo-keihem, roshayehem, shivtheihem, ziknkeihem, v’shotreihehm kol ish Yisrael (Deut.23:9) Taphem, nesheihem, v’gerha asher bekerev makhaneha, mi-khotev eitzeha ad sho’ev meimeha (23:10).

After listing every type of person among the Israelites, including children, women and the strangers in the camp, he concludes by saying (everyone) “from the chopper of your wood to the drawer of your water”. Implicit in these words is ‘and everyone in between’.

Now this is hardly a very sweeping or impressive range. After all, both woodchoppers and water drawers rank at the very bottom of the social order. Would it not make more sense, for example, to say. e.g. “from rabbinic sages to investment bankers”?

The commentaries suggest that these lower orders of human referred to the Gibonites who inveigled themselves into the Israelite camps and were assigned menial tasks.   But this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Had this been Moses’ intent he would have said “including wood choppers and water drawers” and not “from the chopper of your wood to the drawer of your water” – obvious bookends meant to enclose a comprehensive range of types and callings.

Also interesting is the use of “your” as in the chopper of “your” wood. Why not merely say from “choppers of wood to drawers of water”? Why the need for the extra “your”?

I would like to suggest a possible explanation. The establishment of a new community, a new society and especially a new country requires certain preliminary efforts, specifically the designation of two critical pillars to social viability. There must first be hewers of wood, i.e. builders, and simultaneously, drawers of water, i.e. firefighters.

The first pillar includes all those who are involved in the process of building the physical plant – the homes, the roads, the houses of worship, the hospitals and other physical infrastructure needed for a viable community. These all fall under the umbrella “hewers of wood” the primary material of construction.

The second, and equally important pillar includes all those whose job it is to put out fires. And this goes beyond actual firefighters who literally extinguish flames, to include physicians who extinguish illness,to lawyers who on rare occasion actually do good by mitigating social conflagrations, to plumbers and others whose job it is to prevent or thwart catastrophe.

It is only after these two pillars are in place that the rest of us can go about our business, as artists, writers, jewelers, tailors, manufacturers, farmers, retailers etc.

For without our woodchoppers and water drawers – our builders and those who protect what we build – there is no possibility for the rest of us to go about our business and daily routines.

As to why Moses uses the least common denominator among these two primary pillars, and why he uses the term “your”, perhaps this is in order to instill a measure of humility among those who build and protect our communities; that ultimately, when it comes down to it, a real estate tycoon is still only a chopper of wood, and a physician is still only a plumber whose job it is to serve society and not the other way around. Hence they are “your” woodchoppers and “your” water drawers, mere servants of society and servants of The A-mighty.   They belong to the people, the people do not belong to them.

II. Why only soldiers and veterans are considered men

Between Parshat Nitzvaim and Parshat Vayeleh we have descriptions of three gatherings at which all Israelites were, or were to be, present.  My focus will be on the first two

Nitzavim opens with a new covenant  between G-d and His People (Deuteronomy 29:9 -10)

(9) All of you are standing today before the Lord your G-d; your heads, your tribes, your elders and your officers, even all the men (kol ish) of Israel (10) Your little ones, your wives, and the stranger who is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water.

In Vayeleh, Moses describes the Hakhel gathering which would take place every seven years at which time everyone must gather to hear the Torah read (Deuteronomy 31:!2)

Gather the nation, the menfolk (ha-anashim) the womenfolk, and the children, and the stranger in your gates that they may hear and that they may learn etc.

 Whereas in Nitzavim Moses itemizes the hierarchy of adult males, in Vayeleh he merely says ‘menfolk’.

Why the difference?  And, more importantly why the hierarchy altogether? After all, with the words “Atem nitzavim hayom kulhem”, we have already established that everyone is standing there. Why the need to describe what “all of you” (kulhem) means?

With regard to the Hakhel gathering in 31:12 menfolk are a single grouping.  The addition of women, children and strangers is therefore necessary because ‘anashim” alone might be construed as exempting women, children and strangers.  But in the covenant of Nitzavim the word ‘kulhem’ (all of you) would appear to need no elaborations. After all everyone who was standing there knew full well that he or she was standing there.

I would suggest therefore, that there is a limiting aspect to the breakdown of those who were present in Nitzavim.  Indeed everyone was there. However Moses was not speaking to everyone, at least not to everyone among the adult males.

Note the use of the word  “ish” – man. The hierarchy of adult males are all classified as “ish”. And the word “ish” has a very precise meaning as described in Numbers 1:2-4

(2) ‘Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their polls;

(3) From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go out to the army: you shall count them by their hosts, you and Aaron.

(4) And with you there shall be a man (ish ish) of every tribe, every one head of his fathers’ house.

Indeed Parshat Bamidbar, the opening parsha of Numbers declares that ONLY those males who are 20 or older and who serve (or have served) in the military are to be counted.   It is only these males who are called “ish” (man). Anyone else is not called “ish” and simply does not count.

Which brings us back to the convenant (brit) of Nitzavim.  Moses lists the hierarchy of “ish” because he is deliberately ignoring those who, despite being males over 20, could not be legitimately called “ish”.  In verse 10 he then addresses children, and women and strangers – even those with the lowliest vocations – because these people were not required to serve in the army and hence did not deserve to be excluded from Moses’ attention.

As they say in the yeshivish world; Moshe was not even ‘gorais’ the males adults who refused to serve in the army.

So the question is; what is about military service that makes it the sole criteria for determining whether a man is counted? Why are draft dodgers, pacifists, kolel members, or anyone else who manages to evade conscription not counted?  What exactly is the difference between those who bear arms for their people and those who do not?

I would like to suggest that there is a fundamental difference between soldiering and any other pursuit. In civilian life, whether one is a doctor or lawyer, a business man or architect, a plumber or yeshiva student, he is essentially working only for himself.  True, his effort may have some collateral benefit for others – such as employees, or patients or clients.   Yet the primary motive for engaging in whatever pursuit it is, is a selfish one.  It is only the soldier who knows was it means to do something that benefits the entire society. Indeed, an army is the one place where it is NOT “every man for himself”.  The interdependency of soldiers is the very key to victory on the battlefield.  And the sacrifice a soldier makes is on behalf of the entire society.

Hence it is only the citizen-soldier who deserves to be counted and acknowledged among adult males. And Moses, through his words in Nitzavim makes this abundantly clear.