A 1907 postcard depicts the Israelites gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai.
A 1907 postcard depicts the Israelites gathered in awe at the foot of Mount Sinai for the revelation of the Ten Commandments.

‘From woodchopper to water carrier’ — all are welcome before God

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Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20

On the second floor of a bank building near UCLA, 100 people rocked on their feet, singing and praying. Every single one of us arrayed in white robes or dresses, with simple white sneakers on our feet, we arrived at the closing service of Yom Kippur with exultation and joy.

No one seemed glad it was “finally over.”

And after the final shofar blast, everyone lingered for a long moment, hugging and crying, wishing each other one last shanah tovah before turning homeward to start building their sukkahs.

That service with the Westwood Kehilla in 1989 remains one of the most profound worship experiences I’ve ever had.

In that room were people of all backgrounds, some with enormous financial means, some middle-class students like myself and quite a few still finding their way in an often-unforgiving world. The High Holidays so often feature displays of wealth and prestige. But in that room of accountants, attorneys, anesthesiologists and artists, in the glow of the white garments that equalized us and the divine energy radiating from every face, I sensed that we were, for a brief amazing moment, all one in the sight of God.

Nitzavim begins with that premise, the remarkable assertion that all of the people standing/nitzavim before God, “you tribal heads, you elders and you officials, all the men of Israel, you children, you women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water carrier — enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God” (Deut. 29:9-10).

What a stunning reminder as we enter into the High Holidays. All are welcome, all are wanted — regardless of age, gender, immigration status or profession.

The joke is an old one, of a woman attending the inauguration of her daughter as president of the United States. She leans to the man next to her and whispers proudly: “See that young lady up there? Her brother is a doctor!”

It’s no secret that Jews as a whole place inordinately high emphasis on learning and achieving, and in an unfortunate stereotype, we are thought to dismiss jobs or educations that we deem “less than.”

But Moses’ acknowledgment of woodchopper and water carrier teaches us something we know but often forget — that there is dignity in the work of the hands, in the industriousness of those who labor to maintain the smooth functioning of a society. They are the ones who till, build, clean and craft; they care for, protect, feed and educate us. And they are too often the ones least able to live where they work, to secure health benefits and proper housing, to provide quality education and a legacy for their children.

The value of physical work is thoroughly attested — those who use their hands and bodies regularly report better sleep, greater physical fitness and deep satisfaction with their jobs.

Americans’ continuing battles with weight, stress, diabetes and hypertension are thought to be linked directly to less time spent outdoors, moving and engaging with nature; to being replaced by machines and feeling invalidated by the work in which they do engage.

Proverbs teaches: “Go to the ant … consider its ways and be wise! It stores its provision in summer, and gathers its food at harvest” (Proverbs 6:6-8).

The legendary picnic-invader is an absolute marvel. Moving in cooperative, advanced communities, ants tackle projects hundreds of times their size, in a methodical, divinely-assigned dance performed with efficiency and style. The ant reminds us that there are no “extras” on God’s soundstage, no parts in the cosmic drama that are too small.

Our Torah guides us in this direction, if we will but follow.

Nitzavim assures us that the deep truth of Jewish tradition is “not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens … neither is it beyond the sea … No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (Deut. 30:11-14).

Communion with the Divine is available to everyone, in the quiet places within, in the steady drumbeat of our hearts, in every breath we take and the carefully chosen words of our mouths to bring healing and dignity to God’s creations.

In a world with such insurmountable challenges, this is achievable — that everyone should feel validated and treasured by their extended human family. Truly, pride and self-respect must emanate from within, but by directing our hearts and words for the good, we can honor the status, achievements and passions of every person, as Moses and tradition bid us to do.

Return, return, return, the parshah says seven times. No matter your profession, no matter your family lineage, wherever you are and wherever you have been, “God will fetch you” (Deut. 30:4).

May we be blessed with the warmth of welcome, and revel in the radiance of the Divine Spark that is within us all, these High Holidays and every day beyond.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].