Thursday, June 16, 2011

The lesson of the stick gatherer

The interesting thing about the stick gatherer's story is that the story really isn't about him. The man is never named, his sin is poorly described*, and the story's emphasis seems to be on the people. Consider the verses:
While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses. [NIV]
As you can see the story isn't about some nameless fellow who sinned, but about how the people responded to him.  We're told that an anonymous man was found, and that those who found him brought him to Moshe and that they kept him in custody. Afterwards, the whole assembly stones him, and tellingly the word used for assembly, eida, is the same word that was used a few verses earlier to describe the spies.

I think an argument can be made that the story was included here as an epilogue to the spy story. A moment ago we were told that the Israelites had been sentenced to stay in the wilderness for forty years, and our story begins with the words "While the Israelites were in the wilderness." The spies constituted an eida that acted improperly, that showed no faith in God, but the eida in our story is commited to upholding His rules. Finally, we may have expected the Israelites to respond to God's decree by abandoning His commandments. They may have reasoned, "If He intends for us to languish in the wilderness, our obligation to keep His laws has expired." The story tells us that the very opposite happened.** Instead, of abandoning the lawthe Israelites recommitted themselves to it, even to the point of (perhaps) appointing watchmen who made it their business to seek out rule breakers and bring them to justice.

* Explanations for mekoshesh eitzim include: gathering sticks, chipping sticks, and carrying sticks from one domain to another. 
** The Rabbis argue about when this story occured. Some say it was the first shabbos in the wilderness; others say it was the first shabbos after the Revelation at Sinai; and others say it was the first shabbos after the crises of the spies.



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