Friday, July 26, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Eikev 5773-The Hills Are Alive

If you know me even a little bit, you know that music is at the core of who I am and all that I do. It is not my only passion – Judaism, Jewish Education, Technology. and Jewish Music are among the other passions of my life, and there are others – reading, crossword puzzles, and so many more. There is still no denying that,although music is only one of my passions, it is a central one, and influences all that I do, and even influences how I engage in my other passions.

I demonstrated my musicality early, and by age 5 I was already a student at the pre-College division of the prestigious Juilliard School. This means I have been playing, creating, and studying music for 53 years. Yet I did not set out, initially, to be a career musician.  Somehow, however, music continues to out itself in and through me.

It was music, oddly, that eventually led me to the other career paths I have pursued. I attended a specialized math and science oriented high school, Bronx Science. I was of course, active in the choir, and served as its accompanist. I even performed with the school orchestra. This eventually garnered me an invitation to be in the mini-pit-band of the school musical. Now we shift locales for a bit. At the same time I started high school, I also started as a student as the Manhattan School of Music’s Preparatory Division.  (When Juilliard moved down the Lincoln Center, Manhattan School of Music –MSM - took over the old Juilliard building. In their move to Lincoln Center, Juilliard contracted a bit, and many students and teachers opted instead to stay in the old building and becoming part of MSM’s program. There was some politics favoritism involved, but we’ll choose to overlook that ugliness for now.)

MSM’s Preparatory Division (and in my humble opinion, all of MSM’s programs) was broader in scope the Juilliard’s, and geared more to vocational learning as opposed to a conservatory approach. Each year, they staged an opera involving every student in some way. (An almost impossible task deftly managed by director Cynthia Auerbach, z”l, who died much too young.) I’ll never be exactly sure why, but instead of choosing to be a chorus member (there was no use for me as a pianist) I opted instead to be on the stage crew. Simultaneously, while working in the ban for the musical at Bronx Science, I developed a similar interest and joined their stage crew.

By this time, you must be wondering what all this has to do with the weekly parasha. Don’t worry, I’ll get there. Eventually.

Both at Bronx Science and at MSM I became actively engaged working on the technical and stage management side of production. At MSM, I even got hired to work on many college productions. I found some side work. I did the lighting for a small showcase show that eventually become the Tony-Award-winning Broadway musical “Bubbling Brown Sugar.”

So when the time came to choose a career path and a college, technical theater was my choice. Throughout college, music continued to be part of what I did. I accompanied students and choirs, filled in for rehearsal pianists for shows, provided entertainment at cast parties, and more. Summers at college I worked at theme parks, though more often I was doing music for live shows rather than tech. (One summer I even started out  stage managing and eventually wound up as the pianist in the pit.)

When college ended, I hadn’t yet lined up a job (the first of many bad career decisions) and eventually accepted an offer to join a Dixieland band whose members I had befriended at one of the theme parks. After a few truly fun-filled years with this band playing in New Orleans and Florida, the party was over and it was time to find work again. The bass player in the band turned me on to an opportunity to be the technical person for a school system performing arts facility, and thus began that phase of my career. For the next 18 years I supervised and managed performing arts spaces, while all the time on the side doing music – accompanying students and ensembles, playing in pit orchestras, even conducting some musicals. Music was somewhat secondary, but it was there, in addition to the stage managing, producing, directing, lighting and set design, technical direction, etc. There were even some shows for which I was crazy enough to be both the set/lighting designer and the musical director.

Also on the side, I had started working as a synagogue musician and religious school teacher. Then I became the director of the religious school. My passion for Judaism soon began to overtake my other interests, and I decided to work full-time as a Jewish professional. I went back to school (supporting myself by doing synagogue music and teaching.) I became a synagogue school administrator by trade, but continued, as always, doing music, both as part of my work as a principal, and independently for other synagogues and organizations.

Now my work has shifted. I have been “between jobs” as they say, in terms of being a religious school administrator for some time now. So I have been working as a songleader, music specialist, day school music teacher, synagogue musician and bar/bat mitzvah tutor. Lately, I’ve added doing Jewish early childhood music to the mix. Once again, music has come to the fore.

I don’t know what’s next. It may be that music will, in the end, be the work that sees me into the last decades of my career. I do know, that whatever I am doing, music will still be playing an important role.

What was it that caused me to reflect upon all this? It was readin through the haftarah for parashat Eikev, the second haftarah of consolation read between Tish B’Av and Rosh Hashanah, from Isaiah, 49:14-15:3. In particular, it’s the very end.

These words help me to understand why it is that music is what keeps coming to the front in my life. They help me to feel good about that. I am living in the best of all possible worlds, for music is of the highest calling, especially music in service to G”d and Judaism. Just how high has place does music have in the hierarchy of things. Consider where Isaiah’s words place it:

כִּֽי־נִחַם יְהֹוָה צִיּוֹן נִחַם כָּל־חָרְבֹתֶיהָ וַיָּשֶׂם מִדְבָּרָהּ כְּעֵדֶן וְעַרְבָתָהּ כְּגַן־יְהֹוָה שָׂשׂוֹן וְשִׂמְחָה יִמָּצֵא בָהּ תּוֹדָה וְקוֹל זִמְרָֽה:

Truly the Lord has comforted Zion,
Comforted all her ruins;
He has made her wilderness like Eden,
Her desert like the Garden of the Lord.
Gladness and joy shall abide there,
Thanksgiving and the sound of music.
(Isaiah 51:3)

Yes, the hills are alive with the sound of music. The hills of fair Jerusalem. There one shall find thanksgiving and music, as one will find in the Garden of Ad”nai. Music is my connection to this holiest of places, and to G”d. May it always be so.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Eikev 5772 - Is El Al Really Doing the Right Thing?
Eikev 5771-Lining Up Alphabetically By Height
Ekev 5770 - For the Good Planet
Ekev 5769-Not Like Egypt
Ekev 5766 - Kod'khei Eish-Kindlers of Fire
Eikev 5765-Are We Forgotten?
Ekev 5764-KaYom HaZeh
Ekev 5760 (from 5759)-Not Holier Than Thou


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Friday, July 19, 2013

Random Musing before Shabbat–Va’etkhanan 5773-Redux & Revised 5759ff-The Promise

It has become a tradition (well, for many of the last 14 years or so) to annually share with you this Random Musing for parashat Va'etchanan. As always, a few alterations added this year to keep it timely.

      הַעִידֹתִי֩ בָכֶ֨ם הַיּ֜וֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָ֗רֶץ כִּֽי־אָבֹ֣ד תֹּאבֵדוּן֮ מַהֵר֒ מֵעַ֣ל הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתֶּ֜ם עֹבְרִ֧ים אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֛ן שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּ֑הּ לֹֽא־תַאֲרִיכֻ֤ן יָמִים֙ עָלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֥י הִשָּׁמֵ֖ד תִּשָּׁמֵדֽוּן׃
      וְהֵפִ֧יץ יְהוָ֛ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם בָּעַמִּ֑ים וְנִשְׁאַרְתֶּם֙ מְתֵ֣י מִסְפָּ֔ר בַּגּוֹיִ֕ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְנַהֵ֧ג ה" אֶתְכֶ֖ם שָֽׁמָּה׃
      וַעֲבַדְתֶּם־שָׁ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֔ים מַעֲשֵׂ֖ה יְדֵ֣י אָדָ֑ם עֵ֣ץ וָאֶ֔בֶן אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא־יִרְאוּן֙ וְלֹ֣א יִשְׁמְע֔וּן וְלֹ֥א יֹֽאכְל֖וּן וְלֹ֥א יְרִיחֻֽן׃

I call heaven and earth this day to witness against you that you shall soon perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess; you shall not long endure in it, but shall be utterly wiped out. 
The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and only a scant few of you shall be left among the nations to which the L”rd will drive you.
There you will serve man-made gods of wood and stone, that cannot see or hear or eat or smell. (D'varim 4:26-28)

The Promise. What a stunning prediction. If we don't keep G”d's commandments we shall be scattered among the nations, there to serve man-made gods of wood and stone. (Silica isn't exactly stone, but I wonder if the computer gods we are serving kind of fit that description?)

And here we are. We didn't keep the commandments very well, for the most part. Now we are scattered among the nations. And we serve man made G"ds of wood and stone (and of metals, paper, and bits in a computer.) Oh yes, we keep the ancient faith alive as best we can, but I sometimes wonder if even the most pious among us are meeting the ethical and moral standards set forth in G”d's commandments? Almost daily we hear of pious people who seem unable to resist all sorts of temptations.(Don’t think the liberal Jewish community is exempt, and don’t assume that by pious I mean traditional or orthodox, for pious people can be found in every expression of Judaism. As can those whose piety is but a self-illusion.) 

What a depressing scenario-what a depressing situation for us. But the answer is right there in the following verses:

      וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּ֥ם מִשָּׁ֛ם אֶת־ה" אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּמָצָ֑אתָ כִּ֣י תִדְרְשֶׁ֔נּוּ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃
      בַּצַּ֣ר לְךָ֔ וּמְצָא֕וּךָ כֹּ֖ל הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֑לֶּה בְּאַחֲרִית֙ הַיָּמִ֔ים וְשַׁבְתָּ֙ עַד־ה" אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֖ בְּקֹלֽוֹ׃
      כִּ֣י אֵ֤ל רַחוּם֙ ה" אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לֹ֥א יַרְפְּךָ֖ וְלֹ֣א יַשְׁחִיתֶ֑ךָ וְלֹ֤א יִשְׁכַּח֙ אֶת־בְּרִ֣ית אֲבֹתֶ֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לָהֶֽם׃

But if you search there for the L”rd your G”d, you will find G”d, if only you seek G”d with all your heart and soul —  when you are in distress because all these things have befallen you and, in the end, return to the L”rd your G”d and obey G”d.  For the L”rd your G”d is a compassionate G”d: G”d will not fail you nor will G”d let you perish; G”d will not forget the covenant which G”d made on oath with your ancestors. (D’varim(24: 9-31.)

Even if we search for G”d in the midst of our scattered lives, we can find G”d. For G”d will keep the promises, G"d is compassionate and will not fail us.

I don't know about you, but when I look about the world today, and consider all the horrible mess we have created, keeping these verses in mind is almost a pre-requisite to being able to cope. Now, some will claim that G"d has abandoned us, that G”d no longer responds to our searching. To them I would remind them of the second half of v. 29, which tells us that G"d can be found even in the midst of our diaspora, but only if we seek with all our heart and soul.

I am reminded of a discussion I had with friends one night on Erev Tisha b'Av some years ago. The question was raised, as it often is, why we modern liberal Jews would mourn the loss of the Beit haMikdash when indeed it was that very event that precipitated the formation of portable Judaism, rabbinic Judaism, that has enabled us to survive all these years in galut. Before the Beit haMikdash was destroyed (both times) G"d sent us prophets to warn us that if we didn't get our act together, we'd lose out. Both times we ignored the warning and suffered the consequences. And here we are, almost two millennia later, and we're still not getting it. And so we rail that G"d has abandoned us, when it reality it may be we who have abandoned G"d. Despite all the tragic events, the persecutions, we're still around. If we're not finding G"d amidst all this, we're just not looking hard enough.

We mourn the loss of the Beit haMikdash to remind ourselves of the folly of our still failing to heed the message. Ands to remind us to look for G"d, even among the ruins of what once was. This anamnetical connection with our history keeps the message ever fresh in our minds.

A rabbi friend of mine, Bruce Elder, just the other day, responded to a comment I made to him about my ambivalence at mourning the loss of the Temple by saying that he mourned the loss of (the sense of) community. I am presuming he meant the sense of community that must have existed in those times when the Temple stood simply because of how it drew people together in a common service, a common purpose, a common cause. (This despite the infighting, intrigue, and meaningless sacrifices.) (I apologize if I got the meaning wrong!)

I am also reminded of mass e-mail that was forwarded to me some years back, entitled "Letter of Intent," a whimsical piece in which the Jews explain why they are not planning to renew the covenant with G"d. It goes into a whole litany of complaints. I wrote the following response to those who forwarded the piece on to me:

"You know what's wrong with this whimsical piece? It completely ignores the fact that, despite our perceptions that G"d has not kept up one end of the bargain, that we have done far worse at keeping ours, and that despite that--we're still here!!! If that's not G"d watching over us, I don't know what is, and renouncing our covenant is sheer folly, and certain to lead to the end of even the remnant that remains of the Jewish people. We didn't listen to the prophets, and we're still not listening. Yet, somehow, mir zenen doh. When, if ever, we actually try to do the things that G"d wants us to do, at least most of the time, and we're still put upon, tortured, killed, etc., then maybe we have a right to complain. But I don't think we've earned that quite yet.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that, in the intervening decade since I first wrote these words, I’ve become less and less enamored of the “we’re still here” argument. It has lost its power for me as a rationale for my continuing to life my life as a Jew. Survival is not enough. I am spending more and more of my time searching for new understandings of the “why be Jewish” question, up to and including completely new and radical approaches (while continuing to mine the more traditional rationales for useful components.) For the purposes of this musing, however, I’ll continue to stipulate that “we’re still here,” whether viable rationale or not, is reality, and should factor into our equations.

Coming back for a minute to the idea of community, I think we’d do well to keep in mind, much as we like to focus on individuals, that G”d’s promise really is to the community. G”d promises US to remember the covenant made with OUR ancestors.

Torah tells us that G"d is always there for us to find--if we search in the right way-with all our heart and soul. That’s not as easy to do as it sounds. Those moments when I feel I am truly searching with heart and soul together are rare. Much of the time I am searching with one or the other. Sometimes it is simply an intellectual pursuit. Sometimes it is a simple desire to acknowledge a power beyond my understanding.  Sometimes it is a deep-seated need to be loved. Sometimes it is a deep-seated need to not feel so alone in the Universe. (Sometimes these needs are practical. Sometimes they are emotional. Sometimes they are psychological. Sometimes they seem to come from outside, sometimes from inside, and sometimes they even feel alien.)

Sometimes, it is just for fun or relaxation or stimulation. Sometimes it is just because. And sometimes, it just is.

I know I need to work on breaking through the divisions between my internal silos, so I can truly seek G”d with all my heart and soul. I pray for the ability to do so. I pray for the desire to do so.

Continuing on with the idea of community, it is all well and good to engage in these activities on my own, but consider how much more meaningful and powerful they could be if I engage in them as part of the community, in community, with a community. I must carve out a place for myself, in the rubric of community worship, to seek G”d. I must join in oprayer WITH my community as together we seek G”d with all our hearts and souls. What better kavanah (intent) to accompany the keva (fixed text?)

This Shabbat, seek with all your heart and soul. I’m pretty sure that G"d is there waiting to be found, because, every once-in-a-while, I’ve had a glimpse or an inkling. Even if you have already found G"d in your life, seek deeper. Who knows what deep wells you will tap? And what better time to attempt this than Shabbat, when we are already the recipients of a forshpeis (a little snack or taste) of the world to come? What better place than when joined with the community in worship? (Though I will not abandon nor undersell the importance of individual prayer and seeking of G”d.) Shabbat provides us with a little crack to peer through. What will you see? What will I see? What will we see? 

Shabbat Shalom,


©2007 by Adrian A. Durlester Portions ©1999 2001, 2002, 2012 & 2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Va'etkhanan/Shabbat Nakhamu 5771 - Comfort
Va'etkhanan 5769-This Man's Art, That Man's Scope
Va'etchanan 5764--Sometimes A Cigar...

Friday, July 12, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–D’varim 5773-The Pea in Og’s Bed

      וַנִּקַּ֞ח בָּעֵ֤ת הַהִוא֙ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ מִיַּ֗ד שְׁנֵי֙ מַלְכֵ֣י הָאֱמֹרִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן מִנַּ֥חַל אַרְנֹ֖ן עַד־הַ֥ר חֶרְמֽוֹן׃
    צִידֹנִ֛ים יִקְרְא֥וּ לְחֶרְמ֖וֹן שִׂרְיֹ֑ן וְהָ֣אֱמֹרִ֔י יִקְרְאוּ־ל֖וֹ שְׂנִֽיר׃
      כֹּ֣ל׀ עָרֵ֣י הַמִּישֹׁ֗ר וְכָל־הַגִּלְעָד֙ וְכָל־הַבָּשָׁ֔ן עַד־סַלְכָ֖ה וְאֶדְרֶ֑עִי עָרֵ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת ע֖וֹג בַּבָּשָֽׁן׃
      כִּ֣י רַק־ע֞וֹג מֶ֣לֶךְ הַבָּשָׁ֗ן נִשְׁאַר֮ מִיֶּ֣תֶר הָרְפָאִים֒ הִנֵּ֤ה עַרְשׂוֹ֙ עֶ֣רֶשׂ בַּרְזֶ֔ל הֲלֹ֣ה הִ֔וא בְּרַבַּ֖ת בְּנֵ֣י עַמּ֑וֹן תֵּ֧שַׁע אַמּ֣וֹת אָרְכָּ֗הּ וְאַרְבַּ֥ע אַמּ֛וֹת רָחְבָּ֖הּ בְּאַמַּת־אִֽישׁ׃

8. Thus we seized, at that time, from the two Amorite kings, the country beyond the Jordan, from the wadi Arnon to Mount Hermon — 9. Sidonians called Hermon Sirion, and the Amorites call it Senir  - 10 all the towns of the Tableland and the whole of Gilead and Bashan as far as Salcah and Edrei, the towns of Og's kingdom in Bashan. 11. Only King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaim. His bedstead, an iron bedstead, is now in Rabbah of the Ammonites; it is nine cubits long and four cubits wide, by the standard cubit!

Yep, that’s what it says. King Og’s bed was still around and was huge. So what? Yes, it is one of those sentences that gives the reader pause. It has all the appearances of a gloss, a bit of text inserted by editors or redactors at some later point. Yet it probably isn’t. For one thing, at the time of King Og (whose existence is attested, by the way, in other texts from other civilizations of the time, particularly Phoenician, not just the Torah) iron was not in common use. It was the late Bronze age. In a time when the use of ironw as rare, and it was considered precious, referring to the bed as iron would have great impact. Why would a later redactor, living in a time when the use of iron was common, bother to insert such gloss? That makes little sense.

If this were a subliminal (or perhaps not  so subliminal) advertisement from the Rabbah Convention and Visitor’s Bureau enticing people to come see the magnificent iron-adorned bed, it would make sense only at a time when an iron-ornamented bed was a rarity. Most potential candidates for editors and redactors of the biblical text come from a time period well into the Iron age, when an iron bed would be simply ho-hum.

This sort of parenthetical reference is not unique among ancient texts that come from the Middle East and the Levant. One can find similar references in Hittite, Egyptian, and other texts. It is, while not common, a regularly employed literary device, or so it would seem.

The rabbis didn’t have any trouble with this reference. For them it was a clear indicator that Israel was able to defeat even the mighty King Og of Bashan handily. The reference to King Og as the last of the Rephaim, plus the size of his bed, are all intended to indicate that he was a giant, either literally, or allegorically. (Does it really matter which?) The rabbinic midrashim are replete with tales of the giant King Og. It is said he survived the great biblical flood by grabbing on to Noah’s Ark. During battle with the Israelites, he is said to have torn off the side of a mountain and thrown it at them (only to be defeated by Moses himself who stabbed him in the ankle, said to be at a height of 30 cubits!)

Og’s bed was about 14 feet long and six feet wide. Large. Ostentatious perhaps. In fact, maybe it was that large just to show off, and had nothing to do with Og’s stature at all. That’s another school of thought.

Christian scholars of the Hebrew Bible allowed their puzzlement with this seeming gloss to lead them down the primrose path of imaginative retranslation, saying the words “iron bed” were actually colloquial for “stone coffin.” Huh? Fortunately, this theory has fallen out of repute, even among Christian bible scholars, and never gained any traction among Jewish biblical scholars.

However, even Jewish scholars have wandered some strange paths on this one. The medieval scholar as tosafist Bekkor Shor insisted that the word for bed, eres, actually meant fortification in this case, and was meant as a reference to the mighty iron fortifications of the town of Rabbah. His views were adopted by others. It provided a convenient way to sidetrack any discussion about whether or not Og was an actual giant (though this also requires ignoring the reference to Og as Rephaim.

One of the latest theories among biblical exegetes and archaeologists is that Og became deified, and that the bed was a symbol of his deity. Making his defeat by the Israelites an even more remarkable feat. He wasn’t just a giant, he was a god!

What makes this theory even more interesting is that, if we take the Torah, and particularly D’varim. as a faithful description of Moses’ final oratory, then Moses was saying, in effect: Look, we defeated might King Og of Bashan, who, even yet, after our defeat of him some time ago, is still worshipped as a god in Rabbah (the bed being a cultic object.) So G”d defeated a god who was still around being a god. Put that in your monotheistic pipe and smoke it!

So what can we learn from all this? For me, it’s the same lesson I keep learning over and over, and keep sharing with you. This one little reference continues to occupy the thoughts and time of scholars as it has done for two or three millennia. These  things are here to baffle us,m to challenge us, to make us scratch our heads. They remind to not take anything at face value (at least, not until you’re satisfied that face value is all there is. And you could still be wrong in the end.)

Words have the power to jar. Last week on Facebook I reshared an article a friend had posted reminding us on July 4th of the three ugly words in the Declaration of Independence in reference to native Americans: merciless Indian savages”. How many of us even realize they are there? How many of us are jarred by them if they are not brought to our attention? So too, with Torah. It’s easy to overlook the strange, the troubling, the out of place, the anachronistic, the gloss.

It’s easy to toss it off, especially if you view the Torah as the work of human beings,or human beings guided by G”d. It’s less easy to toss it off if you have a more literal view, but the rabbis come to the rescue-the rabbis answer it all for you-if you choose to accept their interpretations. But let’s not make the very erroneous assumption that Jews whose practices and beliefs are traditional do not question. Questioning the Torah is not the sole property, nor the invention of liberal Judaism. Methodologies and conclusions may vary, but questioning is at the core for any serious Jew.

So the lesson is – don’t toss it off, ignore it, or even seek a work around for it. Confront it head on, and try and figure it out. For the bed Torah has made for us is akin to the one that was used in Han’s Christian Andersen “The Princess and the Pea.”  We must be like that princess, be like Winifred the Woebegone, in Mary Rodger’s adaptation of Andersen’s tale in “Once Upon a Mattress.” We must feel even that one tiny pea under 20 mattresses, and let it keep us awake. And the Torah is full of mattresses with a pea.

“For a princess is a delicate thing, delicate and dainty as a dragonfly's wing. You can recognize a lady by her elegant air, but a genuine princess is exceedingly rare.” (from “Once Upon a Mattress” music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer, book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer)

Let us all be the princess who slept on the Torah and sensed the pea.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

D'vraim 5772 - Revised 5762 - L'chu v'niva'ch'chah and the Twelve Steps
D'varim 5769-Torah of Confusion
D'varim-Shabbat Hazon 5771/5766  - Refractory Recalcitrant Recidivists
D'varim 5764--Eleven Days
D'varim 5763--Remembering to Forget or Forgetting to Remember?
D'varim 5762-L'chu v'niva'ch'chah and the Twelve Steps
D'varim 5759-Owning Up
D'varim 5760-1-Kumu v'Ivru


Friday, July 5, 2013

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Matot-Masei 5773-The Torah Is One Of My FaceBook Groups

The recapitulation of the journey of the Israelites that starts parashat Masei can seem redundant and irrelevant to some. While I’m not prone to consider any text in the Torah as irrelevant (though some is redundant-and perhaps not always purposefully despite the claims of the rabbis and commentators) I’ve never given much thought to these verses. We know the journey it retells.

Nevertheless, I think I now get it. The rabbis and commentators tell us, recounting this journey serves to remind the Israelites (and we, the reader) of all the things that happened along the way. The rabbis and commentators try to place it in as positive light as possible, saying these verses give us the opportunity to recall each and every miracle that G”d performed for us. That may be so, but it is no less capable of reminding us of the less than optimal things that happened along the way. There is value in that, I am certain. We can learn from all of it. We can learn who we are, what we are, why we are.

It is interesting to note how the text tells us that Moses recording the “starting points” along the journey. The reality, which the sages calculated, is that this recapitulation actually serves to remind us that much of the journey was spent encamped in one of 20 places along the way. Except for the first and last years of our 40 year journey, it wasn’t much of a continuous march. We stopped along the way, and often remained in one place for quite some time. However, not so subtly, the Torah tells us that Moses didn’t note “stopping points” but “starting points.” That’s a reminder that although the journey wasn’t continuous, it still had a clear and ultimate endpoint.

It’s a logical place in the text for a revisiting of the journey, for the Israelites are now on the threshold of the promised land. It’s interesting to examine which events are recounted in this retelling. Lots of place names are mentioned, and perhaps they can remind us of the events that took place there, but only a few places specifically have associated events recalled.The slaying of Egypt’s first-born. The twelve springs at Elim. The lack of water at Rephidim. Aaron’s death at Mt. Hor, and the Canaanite King of Arad who learned of the Israelites coming. Why those five? The last isn’t even a place so much as am indirect recollection of the victory of the Israelites from the beginning of chapter 21. So many more things happened along the way. Manna, Quail. Water from rocks. Sinai! Just to name a few.

Well, the first two are bookends. The slaying of the first-born and the victory over Arad were great miracles wrought by G”d (that also, as it happens, resulted in great death to many. Hmmm.) In between we have a miracle of lots of water; a time of no water when water is provided by a miracle yet a frustrated Moses does it wrong and loses his chance to enter the promised land; and the death of the high priest. I’m sure there are connections in there somewhere, but I’ve not yet been able to suss them out to my satisfaction. Perhaps you, dear reader, will have better luck?

More interesting than the five enumerated places/events is the process of trying to recall what happened at all the other “starting points” mentioned. That, perhaps, is the real purpose of this whole exercise. I get it, I think. It would be too easy if it were all spelled out for us (though yes, Moses, in sometimes very over-stated fashion, is about to do just that in the whole book of D’varim. Not just places and events, but lots of editorializing, some of it with very selective memory.) Looking through the list I have to rack* my brain and try to remember what happened at all these places, and what lessons we can learn from those things. Oh, what lessons there are to be learned. Still.

(Yes, it’s “rack” as a reference to the medieval torture device, not “wrack” meaning damage/destruction. )

I have been fortunate in my life to have had the opportunity to revisit many places, particularly places from my childhood, and of significant events throughout my life. When I revisit these places, memories come flooding back. Not just memories of events, people, places, but also of things learned and experienced.  I also feel fortunate to live in a time when I can revisit these places and events without going there again – through pictures, social media, the internet.  On FaceBook and elsewhere, I have connected to groups of people from many of the “starting places” on my life journey. Through this, I can re-experience events, relationships, lessons learned.

I enjoy doing it. It can take all sorts of forms. I might use Google Maps and Google Earth to locate and look down upon places I have lived. Street View might show me how things have changed (or not.) I reminisce with old friends (and sometimes with people I never really knew) about shared locations, neighborhoods, schools, sites, workplaces and more on Facebook groups. Charting my journey is not just about nostalgia. It helps me to rediscover myself, and develop greater insight into who I was then, who I am today, and perhaps why that is so.

Through the Torah, and I can revisit the places where our distant ancestors had their life experiences. She, too, can help me discover and rediscover myself, and develop greater insight into who I am (and perhaps why I am.) (Ah, there’s a connection to that favorite word of mine, anamnesis. Look it up.)  My ancestors’ journey is my journey. My journey is my ancestor’s journey. Together, we can explore the past, live the present, and plan and prepare for the future. I’m going to press the LIKE button on that.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Matot-Masei 5772 - And the Punting Goes On
Masei 5771 - Cause and Effect
Matot 5771 - Don't Become Like...Them
Matot-Masei 5770 - Treasure Trove of Trouble
Masei 5768 - Accidents Matter
Matot 5768/5765-Even Moshe Rabbeinu Had to Punt
Matot-Masei 5766 - First Fruit
Matot-Masey 5764-Putting the Kids Before the Kids
Matot--Masey 5763-Over the Top
Matot--Masey 5762--The Rebel's Complaint and Promises, Promises