At the very beginning of the weekly Torah portion, Moses makes mention of the breadth of people standing before him. There is no question about a hierarchy – the heads of the tribes and the tribesmen themselves, the women and children, the strangers to the people of Israel, all the way to “the hewers of wood and the drawers of water.” (Deuteronomy 29:11)
I always remember one of my favorite jokes when I get to this verse, abbreviated here because I almost certainly have told it to you. At least once. This little Jewish guy applies for a job as a lumberjack. His audition is spectacular, including chopping down a huge tree with such speed and strength that it flies up in the air, enabling him to split it into firewood on its way down. “Where did you learn to chop wood like that?” asks the foreman. The guy responds, “In the Sahara Forest.” The foreman says, “Don’t you mean the Sahara Desert?” The guy replies, “Sure. Now.”
What could be more useless a skill among people wandering in a wilderness than a hewer of wood? Perhaps only a drawer of water. That’s especially true because God has just made the point that all the needs of the Israelites were provided for during the past forty years. And add to that the fact that entire generation that left Egypt has, by this time, died, and we know that the hewers and drawers are laborers who have been taught skills by their fathers that play no productive role in the economy of the moment.
Likely, those skills will be valued again when the people settle in the land. But until that time, Moses honors them by acknowledging that the collective "you" he addresses is not complete without the individuals who are, at that moment, the least among them. The worth of a person is not measured in utilitarian terms. Unless there is a specific task at hand that requires a skill set, everyone is indeed created equal.
That sense of equality pervades the Torah from start to finish. I am not suggesting that there are not divisions among the human family in which the Bible makes value judgments – the Amalekites bear an irreversible blemish whereas somehow the Egyptians receive most favored nation status – but in terms of simple dignity, we posit fair and equal treatment for all. And I make that claim in spite of some evidence to the contrary because as the centuries wear on Jewish scholars place more and more emphasis on commonality and less and less on inherent differences.
I had hoped to hear more of that kind of aspirational equality in the campaigns being conducted for various offices. Alas, I am hearing less and less. One national candidate is making history with his rhetoric dividing the United States from the rest of the world and citizen from citizen. But the other one also seems to be treating some people as more important than others. I guess pandering to voting blocks is how you win elections these days, but while the two major candidates are playing rich against rich and middle class against middle class, who is speaking up for the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, those people whose parents' skills, passed lovingly to the next generation, play no productive role in the economy of the moment?
It's funny the two things that brought this notion to my mind. A dear friend of mine who has found his way namelessly into a bunch of these columns made me notice the neglected and forgotten. He wrote about it much better than I can, so I won't steal his thunder.
And a guy I met incidentally the other day filled in the rest. I was a sort of fly on the wall during a remarkable radio interview. While awaiting the subject's arrival, I had a chance to chat with the sound engineer. His story was really old school, mostly without the school. Fascinated by the movie business, he took odd jobs and apprenticeships when he was young and learned by doing almost every aspect of the industry. Eventually, he moved to television just at the time when the technical aspects of TV were catching up with films. There he encountered teams of specialists whose expertise came from specific technical training – no one was the kind of media generalist he had become. He makes a good living and he does satisfying work, but a lot of his skills belong to the past. In the economy of the moment, no one has need for a guy who can run a moviola or who can match sound effects with 35mm prints. Those things belong to the Sahara Forest.
But I am pretty certain that, like hewers and drawers in the wilderness, the huge entertainment conglomerate for which he works would not be complete without him. He brings what he knows and he brings who he is and he does a pretty good imitation of a radio sound engineer. He just needs to know that he is valued.
Not a lot of people hew and draw these days. And spell-check does not recognize "moviola." Certain skills become less and less necessary as others emerge to replace them. But the people who hold those skills should be recognized for their worth, and not just because they fill out some demographic that can swing an election. Rather, because they matter.