Nitzavim/Vayelekh Re: wood choppers and water drawers; and Moses, lion in winter


I.“Kol ish” — Every “Man”

Between Parshat Nitzvaim and Parshat Vayelekh 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 Vayelekh, Moses describes the Hakhel gathering which would take place every seven years at which time everyone must gather to hear the Torah read (Deuteronomy 31:12)

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 Vayelekh he merely says ‘menfolk’.

Why the difference?  And, more importantly why the hierarchy altogether? After all, with the words Atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem,” 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 ‘kulkhem’ (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 20-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 covenant (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.

In other words, Moses is deliberately excluding all males who willfully abstain from serving in the military. They simply do not exist.

So the question is; what is it about military service that makes it the sole criteria for determining whether a man is counted? Why are draft dodgers, pacifists, kollel 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 businessman 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 what 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.

  1. Those not soordinary wood choppers and drawers of water

מחטב עציך עד שאב מימיך

“…from the chopper of your wood to the drawer of your water”. (Deuteronomy 23:10)

After listing every type of person among the Israelites, including children, women and the strangers in the camp, Moses 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.


(A note of apology If what you read here seems a bit confusing, this reflects the confusion I am left with after reading this parsha which I find circular, inconsistent, and ultimately depressing. – jjg)

וילך משה וידבר את הדברים האלה אל כל ישראל
And Moses went, and he spoke these words to all of Israel
(Deut 31:1)

This week’s parsha, Vayelekh , begins cryptically and devolves into some very mixed messaging. For openers, the word “vayalekh” seems not only superfluous but incomprehensible.  Why does this parsha, which continues from Nitzavim – where Moses is standing before the entire assembly of Israel – begin with “And Moses went”? Where exactly did he go?  Were the Israelites suddenly transported to a different location?  More to the point,  ‘going’ implies departure, yet the entire parsha is replete with references to Moses not merely speaking to the Israelites but speaking directly into their ears.

Can it be that this “vayelekh” is more of an emotional and psychological departure? That Moses is mouthing what may be the right words but no longer connecting to the reality on the ground?  Has he become a lame duck leader who, sensing his imminent exit from the stage of history, is addressing his flock in a perfunctory if not outright discombobulated manner?

Or could it be that he is simply disgusted with the Children of Israel, and this pent up bitterness makes him ‘walk’ away emotionally while leaving behind a mixed message, and worse yet, what is to become a terrible self-fulfilling prophecy?

Indeed, in the second verse  he says בן מאה ועשרים שנה אנכי היום לא אוכל עוד לצאת ולבא וה’ אמר אלי לא תעבור את הירדן הזה — Today I am 120 years old, I can no longer come and go, and G-d told me “you will not cross this Jordan” (Deut 31:2).

He is first stating that due to his age he no longer has the energy to move about, and only then tells them that G-d will not allow him to cross the Jordan.  The superfluous word “עוד”  – more – reflects his waning physical strength which, of itself, would render G-d’s order not to cross the river unnecessary.

Moses then proceeds “to write this Torah and he gave it to the kohanim”(31:9).  Yet later on he delivers a strange speech that he refers to inexplicably as a “poem” (השירה הזאת – 31:19).  Yes this “shira” is actually the entire Torah. But the Torah in toto, while containing some fine examples of verse, is not primarily a poem. This parsha especially lacks any hint of poetry.  And this second Torah (but more likely it is the same as the first Torah he writes in verse 9) – this poem – he again gives to the Levites to place in the Ark as a testimony against the Israelites.

At times Moses offers seemingly powerful words of encouragement:  once to the Israelites and twice to Joshua he uses  the words חזק ואמץ and its variant חזקו ואמצו (be strong and courageous – 31:5, 7,33) telling the Israelites “The Lord your G-d passes before you, he will destroy these nations in front of you and you will dispossess them” (31:3)  and then follows in the same sentence with the non sequitur; “Joshua, he will go over before you as G-d has declared”.  Does one perhaps note an echo of bitterness, if not sarcasm, in the second half of this verse?  Yes, perhaps G-d has anointed Joshua, but Moses remains a bit skeptical about his successor?

But then G-d calls Moses and Joshua for a conference in the Tabernacle: “And G-d appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud, and the pillar of cloud stood at the entrance to the tent” (31:15). This may be the very last time that G-d manifests himself visibly before the Children of Israel.

The period of “seeing” miracles is about to end. Upon entering the Promised Land the evidence of sight will be replaced by the secondary and vastly less compelling sense of hearing.

In verse 11 a tremendous, and unnoticed, transition takes place from a period in which one saw the Divine presence to one in which one can only hear what has been handed down.   During the Sabbatical year, seven years after entering the Promised Land  “When all of Israel comes to see the face of the Lord your G-d in the place that will be chosen, you will read this Torah before all of Israel in their ears … that they may learn and fear (ויראו) the Lord your G-d (31:11-12).

Note that the Israelites when anticipating a meeting with G-d, will in the future only hear “in their ears”, not see with their eyes.  And “vayir’u “(and they will see) now becomes  “v’yar’u” (and they will fear).  Both words have the same spelling, but vastly different meanings. Seeing G-d is replaced with fearing G-d. Witnessing miracles is replaced with hearing about them.  And yet, the expectations of adherence and fidelity remain the same despite a vastly changed reality, and reduced sensory experience.

“And Ad-onai tells Moses, you are about to lay with your fathers; and this people will rise and go astray after the gods of the strangers in the land into whose midst he comes, and he will abandon me and violate my covenant which I made with him.” (31:16).  To call this a troubling verse is an understatement. To begin with, it refers to the Israelites in the third person singular, i.e. that they will all go astray as one, no exceptions. This would make them even worse than the citizens of Sodom who may have had as many as nine righteous men in their midst.  Here, where G-d finally refers to the Jewish People as a single whole, it is in the context of their predicted iniquity. And here, too, we have two completely disconnected phrases that are forced to coexist in a single sentence. After all, what does Moses’ body lying with his ancestors have to do with the prediction of Israelite treachery?  What’s more, this verse tells us that Moses is going to be buried with his fathers, which is simply untrue.  Quite the contrary. Unlike the remains of Joseph that were going be interred in the sacred soil of Israel not far from his forefathers and foremothers, Moses would be consigned to an unmarked grave on an alien mountaintop.

Can Moses’ bitterness over his fate motivate the absoluteness of his prediction, ostensibly from G-d, that the Israelites will mess things up?

It is at this point that G-d supposedly orders Moses “to write this poem and teach it to the Children of Israel, and place it in their mouths, so that this poem may be a witness before Israel” (31:19).

Although he has seemingly done precisely this earlier in verse 9, Moses obeys “and teaches it to the Children of Israel “(31:32), at which point he once again flip flops back into apositive mode; “And he commanded Joshua son of Nun, and he told him be strong and courageous because you will bring the Children of Israel to the land I promised them and I will be with you” (31:33) strange words indeed for a man who has been passed over and is about to pass on.

Moses now commands the Levites to carry  “this Sefer Torah” in the Ark of the Covenant where “it will be for a witness against you” (31:26) “because I know your rebellion and your stiff neck, because you have been rebellious against G-d while I was still alive with you, how much more so after my death” (31:27). One would have imagined a more positive reason to transport the Torah in the Ark of the Covenant. Surely the Torah is not meant purely as negative reinforcement?

In sum it seems that the positive words Moses utters are what G-d instructs him to say. At the same time, Moses appears incapable of reining in the personal bitterness of the lion in winter. Hence he predicts with ferocious certitude that the Jews will make a mess of things. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, much as a child whose parent or teacher continually browbeats him with predictions that he will end up “no good”, “a failure”, “a criminal”, “a bum” tends to live up to his pedagogue’s dire expectations. One can only imagine how things might have turned out had Moses’ parting words been infused with greater love and optimism.


About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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