a lesson from gathering sticks
The forecast calls for some snow tomorrow, a weak, wispy but just-the-same welcome balm for a snow-starved wintry soul. To build this up to more than its worth, I decided to go out to collect firewood from our yard, tinder and kindling to kick-start the flames in our fireplace. The chore offered both a primal joy and a practical benefit. Regarding the practical, just in case the power goes out, I will have the means to create hungry, crackling fires. Regarding the primal, gathering the fuel to keep one's family warm and dry is a most satisfying nesting and nurturing feeling, and it is a visceral reminder of how dependent we truly are on the stuff that thrives and dies on this earth.
Gathering firewood for need possesses an urgency of its own. The last "storm" that blew through a few weeks ago - a modest event that hardly merited such a grand label - left our neighborhood cold and dark for almost an entire day. Our sole source of heat and hot water was our living room fireplace. As inefficient as fireplaces are for heating large spaces, they are just fine for heating small spaces and a few bodies cuddling up right next to them. Keeping the fire stoked, flaming and hot is a constant pursuit. Knowing all this, I set out to collect the twigs, sticks and limbs that had fallen over the past few months.
As I wandered back and forth across the yard scooping up all that I could find, I thought about all those generations of all the people who relied on this life-and-death task of hide and seek. I only had to/chose to gather wood today. They needed to gather it every day. Would there be enough wood to take them through the winter? Was the wood dry enough to burn well? Was there enough to do the job or would they need to save some for tomorrow?
My yard, I fully realized, was my own, and I was the only one with the legal right to glean the trees' discards for my use. But what about all those millions of people over the years, all over the world, who owned little or no land, who needed to gather their wood from the commons, from forests and woods and meadows that belonged to everyone, or no one? How would wood be fairly apportioned? How could everyone be certain to get enough? Would people rush out every morning, at the earliest light, or the dark of night, and take more than their fair share, fearful lest someone else would rise early to gather more than their fair share? And who would determine how to measure a fair share? Would a lonely widow merit the same as a houseful of kids? What if it downed wood ran out? Would people start chopping down trees? By what right?
All of a sudden, I discovered a deeper understanding of the odd biblical story about the man who gathered wood on Shabbat (Numbers 15:32-36). It is a harsh story, full of questions and unpleasant things. On the second shabbat after the encounter at Mt Sinai, when the Israelites were still camped in the wilderness, a man was discovered out gathering sticks. This was recognized as a violation of the law, but exactly what was to be done about it was unclear. So Moses took the case to God and God said the man should be stoned, by the people of Israel themselves. And so it was.
Among the many details of this perplexing story is the repetition of the words " the whole community." It is stated three times in only four verses. The man was brought before "Moses, Aaron and the whole community" we are told; God said "the whole community should pelt him with stones;" "So the whole community" stoned him to death.
Not a pretty picture. And, to the modern mind, excessive. Indeed, nowhere does it explicitly say in the Bible you may not collect sticks on shabbat. Other shabbat violations do not require death.
Why this harsh punishment here. Why so early on in our experience with commandments? And why did God make the people Israel the executioners? After collecting wood, I think I know.
Gathering wood is not a leisurely or idle task. One does not do it for pleasure. It is purposeful and measured. Like all carbon-based fuel, firewood demands the exclusive one-time use of a commodity that humans do not make, and that is available only in limited and single-use supply. To collect wood on a day when others do not is to unfairly advantage oneself at the expense and to the detriment of everyone else. To choose to do so shows a disregard of the safeguard for all; a preferencing of self above all else and all others; and a selfishness that does not just benefit self but that disadvantages and endangers others.
Firewood is a precious, life-sustaining commodity. Given the human tendency to hoard, to be certain there is enough not just for today but for tomorrow as well, gathering must be a communal (or otherwise managed) affair. If everyone does it together, in the full light of day, each person serves as a check to be certain that everyone is taking and getting their fair share. Honorable behavior is more likely to happen when everyone gathers together. To allow someone to gather alone, when everyone else is prohibited from doing so, threatens the well-being of the entire group.
This one commandment, then, is not narrowly about gathering wood on Shabbat. It holds within it not just the wisdom of setting aside one day to celebrate being instead of doing, purpose instead of productivity. This one commandment also highlights the imperative of communal responsibility, that is, doing right by and caring for the other. It teaches that no one can set their personal greed or appetites or even fears above those of others and above the common good. It teaches us that nature’s gifts belong to us all, and need to be shared by all, both those here today and those who come after us. It teaches all the best lessons of belonging, restraint, and enoughness.