Drash Nitzavim Vayeilech 5769:Wood and Stone, Heart and Mouth

I’m writing this in the Starbuck’s in Rosemont IL. That might not seem very important but in a sense it portrays everything I want to express.

9. You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God; your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel, 10. Your little ones, your wives, and your stranger who is in your camp, from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water; 11. That you should enter into covenant with the Lord your God, and into his oath, which the Lord your God makes with you this day;[Deuteronomy 29]

The definition of the word which is the name of this portion is a curious word. Here translated as stand it is not the regular word for stand. Aramaic translations in the Targums, are not clear what it should mean. TargumOnkelos translates this word as Stand, in it’s plain sense, but also to ascertain or bargain, Jonathan be Uzziel uses the Aramaic word to make ready, to prepare or to anticipate. Midrash believes Nitzavim means endure. Noting that this verse occurs after the long list of curses from last week’s portion, using Onkelos’ translation, Rabbis note how remarkable that the people are still standing.

R. Berekiah said: He strengthened me to withstand all [afflictions]. You find that after the ninety-eight reproofs in Deuteronomy, what is written? You are standing this day all of you (XXIX, 9), which we render [according to Onkelos], ‘Ye endure this day all of you,’ i.e. you are strong men to withstand all these [reproofs].[ Eicha Rabbah III:1]

Those who were there could endure all that was thrown at them. That interpretation however may not include this verse in its focus:

13. And not with you alone will I make this covenant and this oath; 14. But with him who stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him who is not here with us this day;[Deuteronomy 29]

Most do not take this to mean those who have wandered off and did not hear Moses’ speech, but to future generations. Yet some in the near future of the biblical text present me with a few questions. The role of hewer of wood and drawer of water is an interesting mention. Not long after the crossing of the Jordan and the destruction of Jericho, Joshua makes a pact with some Hivites, the Gibeonites, that he will spare their lives if they remain the drawers of water and the hewers of wood, the lowest class of people.

23. Now therefore you are cursed, and there shall none of you be freed from being servants, and hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God.[Joshua 9]

Thus the hewers of wood and drawers of water are the lowest class and virtual equivalent to a permanent slave class. We also have the stranger mentioned in the verse from Nitzavim. These three point to a rather interesting category: People who were not among those who experienced the Exodus from Egypt. Four of those mentioned, captains, elders, officers, and all the men of Israel, account for the adult male population of Israel. Women and children account for another category. What this brings us to is an apparent class system. First class is men, and as a sub category each type of official. We have women and children who lived in the wilderness as second class. Then we have those who are not originally part of the Congregation or may be marginally part as a lower, almost slave class. There is plenty of support for such a system in the biblical text, but in a very interesting way. Over and over we read of the stranger, widow and orphan, and what to do with them. The categories of people who are neither first class nor under the protection of a first class person are significant to Torah , as the later prophets will often go on about. At the same time, these categories legitimized that there is another status than a male member of the congregation. Indeed, two weeks ago we read:

19. When you cut down your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go again to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
20. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow.
21. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow.[Deuteronomy 26]

and last week to make it completely clear:

19. Cursed be he who perverts the judgment of the stranger, orphan, and widow. And all the people shall say, Amen.[Deuteronomy 27]

Yet, in Nitzavim, it is also abundantly clear. These classes may have been set up by men, but as far as God is concerned, they are all included in the covenant. The responsibility of all us lies in all of us, the responsibility is classless. We stand and endure together or not at all.

In our current world I find it so sad that such a lesson has been warped so badly. People have become in polar opposition to each other, and not just in politics, but in a class structure too. Yet the classes here are not just income or political based, but the the side of the counter one is on. They are those of the customer and the worker. I always remember a woman I was hosting for a conference in my home town and went out for coffee with me. She was one of the strongest social activists I’ve ever met, yet when we were at the coffee counter she treated the guy behind the counter like a lowly slave, barking out orders and telling him how incompetent he is. This is a behavior all of us too often do. But the mirror is also true, I’ve dealt with workers in many jobs who treat their customers as antagonists and not customers.
This why I’m in the classic hangout for writing a good chunk of this, the Rosemont, IL Starbuck’s. I’m sure there are other stores like it, and I’m also sure this is the real secret to paying for expensive coffee. Everyone there knows my name my favorite drink, snack and my story, just as much as I know every Barista and their story. This is not customer and server, or chieftain and water carrier, but instead two human beings who just happen to be making a friendly transaction.Given its closeness to O’Hare International Airport and the Rosemont convention center, this small place has a lot of people walking through. Both the strangers and the police officers get their lattes and breakfast sandwiches here. Yet everyone is treated like a person, and even the customers lookout for each other.
I try for that spirit every day. Sweetie was noticing what happens when we were seated at a restaurant the other day. The entire waitstaff came out to greet me. This is actually very common, and I’m sure others notice it too when ever I walk into a restaurant. In any restaurant, when one sits down at a table, the server often says “hello my name is X, and I’ll be your server today.” Sometimes they only have a name badge and just ask for your drink orders. In either case, I immediately reply “Hi, I’mShlomo , and I’ll be your customer for this evening” while holding out my hand to shake theirs. If this is the first time I’ve done this to a person, they often looked shocked, and have a hard time processing my friendly offering. I’m no longer just a nameless customer, I’ve given them my name and my hand — I’m a human being. What’s more, I’ve acknowledged them as a human being. Over the course of the meal I will talk with them, and often doodle and paint at the table. Sometimes my artwork is left with the tip when I leave the table. This is such a different experience than what most service staff get to deal with on a everyday basis. They are the water carrier and hewer of wood to most people, a mere alien slave who is there to do the customer’s whim. The customer, no matter how rude or condescending, is of course always right. Many restaurant staff members probably forget my name, but most staff know about “the painter.” I recently had a server come up to Sweetie and me and exclaim with relief “thank God I get to serve you today!” She had had a really bad string of customers, and friendly faces was just what she needed.
Interestingly, the Torah this week goes on to say we should, once again, avoid idolatry. Thinking about the rules, blessing and curses that make up much of what we had read in the last few weeks in Deuteronomy, I think their idols, wood and stone, silver and gold are not just some statues acting as gods, but treating human beings as though they are made only of wood and stone instead of flesh and blood. It’s an ancient lesson, one that that is not in Heaven, but truly is a matter very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it[Deuteronomy 30:14] Just treat other human beings like human beings. One of my favorite Hasidic Stories, though I cannot remember the source, is about an Abbot of a monastery who is in such distress he asks the Rebbe of his town for advice. The monastery is falling apart and the monks are constantly yelling at each other. The Abbot is deeply afraid that they will have to close the monastery if these things continue. The Rebbe looks at the Abbot and tells him that he has heard from up above that the Messiah happens to be one of the monks, but he has no idea which one. Treat the Messiah well, the Rebbe declares, and all will be well. The monks when told this each suspect the other is the Messiah and start treating each other with the reverence due of the Messiah. The monastery begins to change, everyone is friendly to each other, the grounds are cleaned up and the Monastery thrives.
The point is clear: We all have some of God in each of us. We all stand before God, but often we forget and think we stand before stone and wood instead. Acknowledging another human being as a human being changes everything. It is far from easy sometimes, but it often is true.
As the last Drash of 5769, may I wish for 5770 that we all learn in our hearts to remove the idols in front of our eyes and see the human being, so we find the Divine in the words they speak.


Trainer, App developer. Author. Artist. Proprietor of makeapppie.com and Host of Slice of App Pie Show

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