"You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel: your little ones, your wives, and thy stranger that is in the midst of the camp, from the hewer of wood unto the drawer of water” (Devarim 29:9-10).
As Moshe’s life nears an end and the Jewish people are poised to enter the Land of Israel, Moshe, as he has been doing throughout much of sefer Devarim, exhorts the people, all the people, to follow in the path that G-d has set before them. The covenant was made with each and every Jew, from the leaders to the simplest of workers, from the intellectual elite to the ignorant.
On the surface the phrases “hewer of wood [and] the drawer of water” have a somewhat negative connotation, as if to say even they, these lowly workers with little influence, are also to be included in the covenant.
While these may not be glamorous jobs, from a covenantal point of view that matters little. All are created in the Divine image. All are equal members of the Jewish people, each with an important and different role to play. The Talmud is replete with the wisdom of the simple folk (see, for example, Sanhedrin 7a). One could argue that it has been the hewer of wood and the drawer of water, the simple folk who remained faithful to the covenant that has ensured the survival of the Jewish people. They may be looked down upon by others but it is the simple, humble and anonymous who are the unsung heroes of our people.
Water and wood are of great symbolic importance in our tradition and are often used as metaphors for Torah. Water is the essential ingredient of life and just as one cannot survive more than three days without water so too we cannot [spiritually] survive if we go three days without Torah; hence the obligation to publicly read the Torah on Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbat.
“Eitz chaim hee", Torah is a tree of life. If allowed to take root and tended to properly it will provide beautiful fruit, shade and wood. Those who draw water and tend to the trees, or shall we say who draw water so that they may tend to the trees, ensure both our physical and spiritual survival. We have a tendency to enjoy the fruit but to forget those whose work helped produce the fruit. It is those who toil in relative obscurity, without whose efforts others could not take the limelight, who ensure the proper functioning of society. This is true in both the physical and spiritual worlds.
Rav Soloveitchik noted how the 120 members of the Anshei knesset hagedolah, the Men of the Great Assembly, who set the contours of Jewish life as we know it today, are for all intents and purposes anonymous. “Wherever we find the greatness of G-d we find His humility”. While the secular world equates greatness with fame we equate greatness with anonymity.
Diplomats know that it is the behind the scenes contacts that bear the greatest fruit. Glamour and fame tend to be fleeting. One who aims for such will usually accomplish little. It is those who are willing to toil in the background who generally make the greatest contributions.
The Jewish people are always in need of quality leadership, leaders who are willing to be the “hewers of wood and drawers of water”, who are happy to work hard with little recognition to ensure both the physical and spiritual growth of the people.
What is true of the Jewish people is also true regarding the world at large. Rashi quotes a rabbinic teaching that the “hewers of wood [and] the drawers of water” refers to non-Jews who during Moshe’s time came to convert and were only allowed to peripherally join the Jewish people by taking upon themselves these jobs.
It is a great honour to “hew wood and draw water”; it is part and parcel of G-d’s covenant.