Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

How Are your Inner Woodcutter and Water Drawer Faring?

Nitzavim-Vayelech

One of the most formidable adversaries you will ever have to deal with is… you.

The reason is simple: the ideas and feelings you know best are your own. Since they are your personal ideas and preferences, you tend to give them utmost importance. If you understand or feel a certain way, isn’t that enough of a reason to do everything possible in order to carry out your ideas and satisfy your desires.

It often happens that the opposite is true. One who defines his or her life plan based solely on what he or she feels, ends up missing opportunities whose value goes far beyond the limited and passing personal ideas and feelings with impact and importance that do not last very long. 

Comfort and familiarity can often be one’s greatest enemies rather than one’s allies.

In this week’s reading, Nitzavim-Vayelech [1], Moshe Rabbeinu addresses the Jewish people saying that “You all stand today before the L-rd, your G-d, the heads of your tribes …. From your woodcutters to your water drawers.”  

The founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, also known as the Alter Rebbe, explains the tasks of cutting wood and extracting water, in addition to their literal implications, as behaviors necessary for personal development: The Hebrew word used in the text in reference to “your wood (cutters)” is “eitzeja” which can also be understood as your “eitzot”, personal ideas and considerations. The water to which it refers to is the “water” factor [2] of the animal soul, in other words, the source and motor of physical pleasures.      

The message here, says Rabbi Schneur Zalman, is that one must extract and eliminate personal ideas and desires that aim primarily at material satisfaction. It is only when one succeeds in neutralizing and removing from oneself these two motives —personal rational and emotional preferences— that one can be in optimal conditions to fulfill one’s mission in life, without the blinding bribery of personal comfort. 

One might suppose that such an uncompromising discipline is applicable only to Torah scholars, to those who dedicate themselves to a spiritual life or to anyone that wants to succeed while engaged in their spiritual activities. What about the commercial or professional area, the mundane, “non-religious” areas of one’s life? Cannot one do there whatever he or she prefers and whatever gives him or her personal satisfaction?

The Rebbe —may his merit shield us— asks this questions and points out that the answer is implicit in Rashi’s commentary on the verse. 

Who were these woodcutters and water drawers? Rashi explains that they were Canaanites who came in Moses’ time with the intention of converting. Moses appointed them to fulfill the functions of woodcutters and water drawers.  

The Rebbe explains that the Biblical term Kenaani (Canaanite) also implies “merchant”. The implication here is, then, that not only with regard to heavenly and spiritual —”religious”— occupations must one be free from personal interests —be they intellectual or emotional— but also with regard to “commercial” matters, all those activities having to do with the physical and material, one needs to employ the skills of the “woodcutters” and “water drawers”. One must eliminate personal ideas and desires, and carry out his activities with the intention of increasing through them the spiritual light, by increasing goodness and kindness in the world.

There are those who might consider this perspective to be a form of persecution: “Am I not allowed to do what I want even in my personal, mundane matters?”. Others may see it as a great opportunity: “Always —even in the most apparently mundane and insignificant activities— I have the opportunity to achieve something of infinite and eternal value, far beyond my selfish, self-centered benefit”. 

So, this week’s tool is: if you feel bad because you see that much of your life has no meaning or special value, remember that it is up to you to determine that: you can either chart your path forward according to your personal ideas and feelings that leave no trace, or free yourself from them and dedicate yourself to something infinitely greater, more valuable and durable.  

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  1. Deuteronomy, 29:9 – 31:30 
  2. According to the teachings of Chassidism and Jewish mysticism, the nature and instinct of each one of us is made up of different combinations of the four basic elements: water, fire, earth and air. Each of the elements seeks its expression through specific behaviors. The element of “water” is the essential nature of pleasure seeking. The element of “fire” is expressed through anger and haughtiness. The element of “earth” is expressed through laziness and depression. The element of “air” is expressed through vanity, mockery, and unproductive conversation.
About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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