More on Woodcutters and Water Carriers

Last week marked our daughter Emunah’s first birthday and my first year anniversary of writing this blog. At the start of last week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim VaYelech we read,

9You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, 10your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodcutter to water carrier (Deuteronomy  29:9-10)

Every Jew was included in the renewal of the covenant, regardless of his or her socio-economic situation or the variety of his or her religious/ritual commitment. But, what can we learn from the Torah’s specifying from the woodcutter to the water carrier?

The Bible seems to be telling a story of a dynamic tension between these two vocations. Last year I explored how Adam and Eve might be understood metaphorically as the woodcutter and the water carrier. This year I wanted to suggest two more readings.

Soon after we celebrate Rosh HaShanah we will celebrate Simchat Torah and reboot our yearly cycle of Torah reading.  And then just after the creation of the world, we will turn our attention to Noah and his generation. While there are many stories in the Bible in which people are looking for water, in the time of Noah that is not their issue. God sent a flood to expunge the world of the poor behavior of the sinners of Noah’s generation. Noah saved humanity from the peril of too much water by following God’s direction to make and ark of gopher wood (Genesis 6:14) In this context we can see that the people acting like animals were the water carriers and Noah in hewing the wood for the ark was the woodcutter. This is to say that in last week’s Torah portion we were inviting everyone from the savior ( Noah)  to the sinner ( the people who caused the flood). We learn that no one has the monopoly on access to Torah.

For today’s readers the story of the flood seems like a Disney movie, but have evolved so much since biblical times. We think we are in control and that we have conquered nature. But it is obvious from the recent flooding  in Pakistan and Katrina here in America that this is far from the case. As much as we try we cannot transcend nature. Even Noah the person who survived the flood by becoming the woodcutter did not know when to leave the ark he built. There we read,
The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the waters had decreased on the earth.( Genesis 8:11)
There is a sweet irony in that we almost went extinct in acting like animals in becoming the water carriers and it was an animal that became a woodcutter and saved Noah and his family.  In this sense the invitation of the woodcutter to the water carrier  is a reminder of the famous words of Rabbi Simcha Bunam. He said,
Every person should have two pockets. In one, [there should be a note that says] bishvili nivra ha’olam, ‘for my sake was the world created.’ In the second, [there should be a note that says] anokhi afar va’efer, ‘I am dust and ashes.’
It seems that control itself might be illusory. I hope that Emunah has another wonderful year perfecting her walking and learning how to navigate her “two pockets”.
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