“You stand today all of you before the LORD your God, your leaders…your strangers in the midst of your camp…from the hewers of your wood and the drawers of your water, to pass over into your covenant with the LORD your God.” (Deut.29:9,11)
According to Rashi, the above phrasing, “hewers of your wood and the drawers of your water”, refers to non-Jews who have come before Moses to convert to Judaism. They are compared to the Gibeonites who came in deceptive fashion to trick the leaders of Israel into accepting them (see Josh.9), only these people referenced here are not being deceptive, but are joining Israel because they want the benefits of association as they enter and take possession of the land, and not because they love the Torah. Therefore, according to Rashi, Moses assigns them to manual labor. They are converts, but do not enjoy the full privileges of citizenship.
This reading perhaps reflects the animosity that Rashi’s generation experienced at the hands of Christianity, and a general ambivalence to outsiders which crept into the Jewish community over centuries of pograms, blood libels and other forms of wicked persecution. Such experiences breed deep-seated distrust and make one question people’s motives when they seek to draw near.
I say this because, in today’s landscape, with Israel miraculously reformed as a nation-state, and hundreds of thousands of non-Jews seeking to learn Torah around the world, it would seem that we have a veritable repeat of history forming before our eyes; one that is reminiscent of this scene in our parsha.
Just as Israel entered into a “Third Covenant” just before entering the Promised Land, today there are many Gentiles seeking to attach themselves to Israel at the dawning of the “footsteps of the Messiah”, when the Final Redemption appears to be near.
Yes, some of them are insincere. Some are play-acting. Some have designs on missionizing Jews. So be it. Because there are also many among them who sincerely wish to do nothing more than to attach themselves to God’s people and to God’s Torah. It is part of the messianic imperative.
“‘Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.”‘” (Matt.13:30)
Stop policing people! Stop telling people what is appropriate for them to be doing! Focus instead on your own devakut (intimate connection) to God, and let God sort out the wheat from the chaff.
The Third Covenant is one that follows after Sinai. At Sinai, the nation is formed, but here, in Moses’s final address to the people, the Third Covenant is announced, declaring the terms of Israel’s establishment. This relates to her taking possession of the land. It also relates to the blessings and curses which follow the faithfulness (or faithlessness, as it were) of Israel to the conditions expected of her.
“There is is an almost indelible connection between our Third Covenantal Mission to the world, and the persecution of Jews throughout the generations at the hands of the gentiles. After all, if we fail in our mission to live in accordance with compassionate righteousness and moral justice, to at least adopt the seven Noahide laws of morality (Rambam, Law of Kings 8:10), it is largely because we have failed ourselves to be proper teachers, because we have failed to become a holy nation and kingdom of priest-teachers, because our light has not shined brightly enough to remove the black holes and to reshape the chaotic corners which pervert human potential. Then it becomes only just that the nation chosen and privileged to carry the banner of redemption to be God’s witnesses and light unto the nations must become the “suffering servant” (Is.53), having allowed that banner to fall from its hands and that light to become extinguished.” (Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, “Torah Lights: Devarim”, Maggid books, pg.331-332)
In this understanding, we see a consecrated Israel being judged according to her role in the education and leading of the Nations towards a relationship with God.
When she fails to do so, she suffers. And the world suffers along with her.
What is this??
Now that, in this generation, the presence of Israel on the worldwide stage has instigated both a sweeping interest in Torah and Judaism as well as an equally sweeping rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, it’s time for us to choose sides.
So much talk today among “messianics” (what I am increasingly prone to call “messy-antics”) is about identity. I tire so of boring conference room banter about what Jews are supposed to be doing and what Gentiles are not supposed to be doing (take your hands off those tzit-tzit!). It makes me want to drink a fifth of Yukon Jack and drive my van straight off a cliff.
So much confusion!!
We need to get past our hang-ups. The King is on his way. He will be teaching Torah from Zion to all people. My recommendation to the Bilateral Ecclesiology adherents and the political pundits who are oh-so-concerned about “space” and “sensitivity”:
I will finish by once again quoting Rabbi Riskin, who articulates this far better than I:
“God has “separated” Israel unto Himself not to the exclusion of the other nations of the world but rather for the sake of the other nations of the world. After all, God created the world, not only Israel, and God loves all of humanity, not only Israel…Is not this Third Covenant focused on the world? For what other reason would the Bible have its laws translated into all seventy languages of the world (Deut.26:8)?
Just as the Kohanim are the priest-teachers of the Israelites, so is Israel the priest-teacher of the nations of the world, a “goy kadosh umamlekhet Kohanim” (holy nation and a kingdom of priest-teachers). (See Sforno, Ex.19:6)
This is the divine charge in Ki Tavo…It is our task as a people to educate the world towards recognition of a God of morality, love and peace; in our global village, the nations must become united as a source of praise and glory to a God of compassionate righteousness and moral justice…
Indeed God’s covenant must encompass Jew and gentile alike. And it makes perfect sense that our biblical reading precedes Rosh Hashanah, when Jews must realize their true mission: to turn the wicked of the world towards a God of morality, to perfect the world with the Kingship of the Divine.” (IBID, pg.330)
Choose your path wisely.
Shalom and Happy New Year