Woodchoppers and Water-Drawers

The Torah section that we read each year on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah begins, “You all stand this day before the L‑rd, your G‑d, the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young ones, your women and your stranger who is within your camp, from your woodcutters to your water-drawers.”

Everyone stands equally before G‑d

This is a beautiful message. On the Day of Judgment, everyone stands equally before G‑d. But notice the discrepancy: the first stations mentioned in this verse are simply listed, while the last two are presented in a somewhat different fashion. Rather than stating “woodcutters and water-drawers,” the Torah changes style and writes “from your woodcutters to your water-drawers.” The words “from” and “to” imply two poles. It tells us that the woodcutters and water-drawers are not the two lowest stations among Jews, as the surface meaning implies. They are two separate poles, the woodcutters at one pole and the water-drawers at the other.

Get Out of Jail Free

Imagine a prison that allows its prisoners a free pass, should they choose to use it. Everyone is handed a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, and if they present it to the warden, they are set free.

G‑d provides His children with a “Get Out of Jail Free” card called teshuvah, “repentance” or “return.” When we turn our backs on G‑d and commit sin, we are imprisoned, so to speak. But we can get out at any time. All we need to do is remind the warden that we are G‑d’s children. We are royalty. We don’t belong in prison.

But if it’s so easy to present our “Get Out of Jail Free” card, why are so many of us still in? Why do we keep returning to our indolent and sinful ways?

To answer this question, we first have to understand how, as royalty, we can end up in prison. It happens when we stop acting like royalty. When we act like commoners, we are treated like commoners. How do we remind the warden that we are royal princes? Simple—we start acting like one.

So although it’s simple, it’s not easy. Using our card entails a lifestyle change. It means behaving like the royalty that we really are.


There are two ways to return to the behavior of a royal prince. One is the way of the woodcutter, the bottom-up method, and the other is the way of the water-drawer, the top-down method. Let’s first explore the woodcutter’s method.

Using our card entails a lifestyle change

The Zohar compares the process of self-effacement to cutting wood: “A wooden beam that doesn’t catch fire should be splintered and it will catch; similarly, a body into which the light of the soul doesn’t penetrate should be splintered.”1

The woodcutter sets aside time for self-reflection and realizes his own paucity: I stand before G‑d and turn my back on him. I opt for transient, shallow pleasures and eschew eternal, holy gifts. I hold infinity in the palm of my hand, and I hurl it away in favor of folly. How low I have fallen! How insignificant and unimportant I have become. I am a decadent and sinful creature. Before G‑d, I am worthless and undeserving. As Pharaoh said when he finally confessed, “G‑d is righteous and I am wicked.”2

This is an arduous and humiliating process. It crushes our self-image and remakes us in a new light. It is ultimately rewarding, but the process takes a heavy toll. It casts a withering pall of gloom that few can withstand. It is little wonder that few issue this get-out-of-jail card. It is a costly maneuver.


Fortunately, there is another option—that of the water-drawer. The water-drawer doesn’t focus on the negative. The water-drawer draws water, a cleansing, purifying agent.

The Torah refers to itself as water, as it says in Isaiah, “Oh, all who are thirsty, go to the water.”3 Our sages understand this verse as speaking to those who are thirsty for Torah: Don’t be lazy and don’t deny yourself. If you are thirsty for G‑d, if you seek a closer relationship with Him, if you find yourself mired in sin, wallowing in a prison and wanting to get out, all you need to do is go to the water.

The more water you drink, the more you cleanse your body. The more water you pour, the more you rinse your garments. And the more Torah you study, the closer you are drawn to G‑d. As our sages put it, “If a person commits a sin . . . what shall he do? If he is accustomed to learning one page of Torah, he should learn two; if he is accustomed to studying one chapter, he should study two.”4 For “if the ugly one (evil inclination) accosts you, draw him into the study hall. If he is made of stone, he will melt . . . as it is written, ‘He who is thirsty shall go to water,’5 and it is written, ‘Stones are worn down by waters.’67

Eventually, the light will catch

The woodcutter focuses on cutting his ego down to size so the soul’s light will catch. The water-drawer doesn’t focus on his own paucity; he focuses on the light. Once we are bathed in the light of Torah, a little bit of light drives away a great deal of darkness. We respond to the beckoning warmth, and the sins melt away. Eventually, the light will catch. Eventually, the ego, of its own volition, will break down. Eventually, we will return.

Whether we arrive as woodcutters or as water-drawers, on Rosh Hashanah we have all arrived. We all stand equally before G‑d. From top to bottom, from woodcutter to water-drawer and every shade in between, may we all be granted a healthy and happy new year.8