The Last of Deuteronomy
Follow only the path that the Lord your God has enjoined upon you so that you may thrive and that it may go well with you, and that you may long endure in the land that you are about to possess Deuteronomy 5:30
There seems to be a perpetual conversation among policymakers about how to motivate people to do the right thing. While everyone agrees that a law-based society like the United States proclaims to be needs rules, and while all but the sociopaths among us agree that laws apply to everyone equally, the role of regulation in our country is the subject of some disagreement.
Certainly, there are some things that are illegal to prevent people from doing them. Aside from big prohibitions like murder and theft, there are smaller (though no less significant) laws that are designed to prevent drunk driving, fouling common areas with trash or effluence, and loosing pets. These laws are about respect for the well-being of others, safe conduct and/or the ability of most (if not all) to have quiet enjoyment of their community.
And certainly, there are some things that are designed to collect revenue to enable government to function by funding first responders, education, physical infrastructure and the like. It is correct, I think, that without a tax structure – whatever it is – the citizenry would not volunteer enough money to support local, state or federal government to conduct itself in the manner to which it has become accustomed.
And certainly, there are some pieces of legislation that are designed to address inequality or inequity that would otherwise create unfair disadvantages for some. Physical accessibility, the ability to cast a vote, a fair chance to purchase a home – these are but a few of the things that, without specific legislation, were not available equally or equitably to all the people created equal in our country.
I like laws. Though I may flout convention from time to time, I have always considered laws to be the way we agree to do the right thing. I like to think I wouldn’t lie, cheat or steal anyway, but I get satisfaction knowing that I am in good company. And, as I have said before, I consider paying taxes a privilege. (That’s not to say I enjoy it, but I see the value for my dollars.)
A well-known (at least by me) Talmudic teaching admonishes us to be faithful to God’s instruction for the sake of being faithful. “Be not like the servant who serves the master with an expectation of a reward,” it says. “Rather, be like the servant who serves the master without expectation of a reward.” There are enough anachronisms in that teaching to distract from its essential message, but it boils down to this: do the right thing because it is the right thing.
I have this teaching in mind constantly as I listen to debates about what is often derisively called “welfare.” Legislators who oppose government-funded support for the poor and unemployed will frequently argue against what they consider to be overly generous payments on the basis that it will discourage recipients from seeking jobs. It is more an insight into the legislator than the recipients when the former puts words into the mouth of the latter: Why should I work if I can make more by staying home?
I am sure some people will game the system if they can take better care of their loved ones with a government grant than an inadequate paycheck. But I imagine that being encouraged by a “servant of the people” to do the right thing, combined with their own desire to live a productive life would engender better results than being accused of being a laggard, only in it for the money. Better, I think, to appeal to our better selves than to be disrespected and offered a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I like to imagine that this Talmudic teaching, though coined by Antigonus (a Jewish scholar with a Greek name) many hundreds of years after Deuteronomy, is a reaction to the notion expressed in the verse above. We should not do the right thing “so that it may go well with [us],” expecting a reward for our service to the just and the good, rather because it is the right thing to do. As Antigonus concluded his teaching, it will keep us in God’s awesome presence.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Also the whole Arava on the east side of the Jordan, as far as the sea of Arava, at the foot of the slopes of Pisgah. Deuteronomy 4:49
You can have your Cat in the Hat and your Grinch. For my money, the best story by Dr. Seuss is “Yertle the Turtle.” Since I first heard it when I was a mere sprout of a lad, I loved it. The name cracks me up. The premise (more in a moment) is delightful. And the denouement, if you can use such a word about a children’s book, involves the first appearance in a published children’s book of the word “burp.” Plus, my uneducated ears heard in the character’s name football great Y.A.Tittle, itself the source of a certain hilarity.
What more can you ask for?
In case your copy is missing, here is the premise: Yertle is the king of the pond, declaring himself the ruler of all he can see. When he discovers that the higher up he sits, the more he can see, he recruits a turtle named Mack and eight others to serve as his throne, and then more and more turtles to sit one atop the other so that King Yertle can increase his sovereignty as “ruler of all that I see.” Yertle’s downfall (literally) occurs when he attempts to stack his subjects higher than the moon. Poor Mack, at the bottom of the teetering tower of testudines (thank you very much), has the misfortune to burp, toppling the column and sending Yertle into the mud below.
Dr. Seuss was quite open about the book being a parable about Adolf Hitler and was pleased to have it understood about authoritarianism in general. And I know, now that I have written the “H” word, that some readers will understand me to be drawing another parallel. Restrain yourselves.
Throughout history, lots of people who find themselves in positions of authority have misunderstood the source of their power. It may be that in our democracy, the consent of the governed is necessary to be put in charge, but even in much smaller social ecosystems (marriage, clubs, faith communities, the playground) it requires humility and respect to avoid overreaching. If the goal of an individual is to remain, even increase their power and influence, sooner or later they will attempt to persuade others to devote themselves to the person, not the cause. And they will acquire as much as they can of whatever represents that power and influence.
For Yertle, it was “all I can see.” For the greedy, it is money. For sexual predators, it is adoring acolytes. For narcissists, it is (mostly undue) praise – and revenge against critics. But if we are going to be honest, it is usually about real estate. Kings and other potentates, right through to today’s national entities, want land, and mostly more land than they have need for.
That’s not to say that such an aggregation of control over territory does not have some beneficial result in certain circumstances. The acquisition of what is now the United States from sea to shining sea involved a variety of conquests or negotiations, none of which acknowledged the rights of the indigenous peoples. But for all the faults belatedly recognized, no one seriously suggests the dissolution of the republic.
When Moses beheld the land he was not to enter, it included a prominent mountain east of the Jordan river and an expanse of land surrounding and south beyond (what we now call) the Dead Sea. Many tribes lived in that land. Today it is an uncontested part of Jordan. But there it is in the Bible, vouchsafed to the Israelites.
Yertles are everywhere, from local zoning commissioners to presumptive leaders of global empires. Climbing onto the backs of the people who give them authority, they try to expand their power and influence by land-grabs justified by rationales as earnest as they are specious.
When that happens, someone should burp.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Meanwhile, we stayed on in the valley near Beth-Peor Deuteronomy 3:29
There is not a lot of traveling to distant destinations during the days of the pandemic. I never had quite the wanderlust of others in my family, but I am discovering that knowing I can’t vacation elsewhere makes me desire it more.
Therefore, I am taking delight in the way some of my Facebook friends are passing the time by posting photographs of the places they have visited. Some of the pictures are just tourist shots, easily identifiable. Others are framed or cropped in such a way that they are more mysterious.
The one consistency among them is that they represent happy memories. So far, no one has posted “quaint little café in rural village where I got food poisoning” or “back of pickpocket running away after stealing my wallet.” I have wonderful shots of the Judean desert, the Danube and Buckingham Palace, but none of Kharkov in Soviet days, where happiness seemed in short supply generally.
I am sure that there are people whose recollections of all those places and more are different than mine. Someone fell and broke a bone in the desert, dropped a camera into the river and got drenched in a downpour in London. And I am certain that sometime, someone had a romantic encounter in Kharkov. They should live and be well.
Personal associations are not the only ones prompted by geographic locations. Places like Kilimanjaro, Seville and Wrigley Field carry with them cultural references shared by people who have never visited (Hemingway, Barber of, best ballpark in America). And sometimes, the references are lost due to time or changing circumstances. Mt. Megiddo (in Hebrew “Har Megiddo”) was home to 27 different cities before it became synonymous with a prophesied cataclysmic battle (Armageddon).
So when Moses reminds the Israelites that they “stayed in the valley near Beth-Peor,” the modern reader of the Bible – especially the casual reader of the Bible – probably shrugs and moves on to the next chapter. But Beth-Peor resonated with the assembled Israelites in a different way and carried that resonance deep into the Jewish imagination through the rest of the Bible and into later times.
Beth-Peor (“House of Peor”) was the home of the Moabites, and their god was the infamous Baal. From the Bible’s perspective, the Moabites were licentious, dedicated to unspeakable acts of abuse performed as worship. In fact, the Talmud and its commentators are explicit that Moabite religion included the exposure and penetration of various intimate orifices in the name of Baal. Camping out in the valley near Beth-Peor was a fraught activity, saturated with both fear and titillation as Moses and the leadership tried to maintain a separation from the locals.
It reminds me of visiting Israel in 1970 and meeting my local teenage peers who responded to the information that I came from Chicago with, “Al Capone! Ack-ack-ack-ack-ack!” And no, I explained, my father was not a gangster.
There are places in the United States known in their current circumstances very differently than the events and contexts of their previous history. Tulsa, Selma, and Ocala resonate with a history much larger than acknowledged today. Seattle and Silicon Valley have reputations that were unimaginable 50 years ago. And though natural beauty exists independent of human labels, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Petrified Forest are lifted up by their designation as national parks thanks to the imagination of President Teddy Roosevelt and those who followed.
We are blessed to live in a time when so many media are available to take us on journeys we might otherwise never experience. Though each has its limitations, collectively they enhance each other to give a fuller picture of what it means to be in a distant and unfamiliar place. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the stories that have meaning to individual travelers, to history and to the experiences of those from a different time than ours.
They should inspire us to want to visit, even in our imaginations, and to do so not only across physical distance, but through the many layers of memory that are preserved in time.
ROOM FOR ONE MORE
The Last of Deuteronomy
But you did not encroach upon the land of the Ammonites, all along the wadi Jabbok and the towns of the hill country, just as the Lord our God had commanded. Deuteronomy 2:37
Some of you will stop reading after the next sentence.
The only thing that continues to astonish me about Donald Trump is that there are still things left that astonish me about Donald Trump.
On the eve of the Fourth of July, he did the most touristy thing a person can do – he took a photo in front of Mount Rushmore that made it look like his face was among the presidents carved into that mountain. As the old saying goes among those who study the presidency, every one of them secretly thinks there is room for one more.
The expected thing to say at this moment is that two of those presidents were enslavers and that all of them were privileged in multiple ways. Also, the sculpture is an accomplishment that was achieved at the expense of the people native to that land who have, understandably, little affection for most, if not all of the four, and even less for the sculptor who defaced their mountain. Maybe I will debate another time what mitigation that should have on their accomplishments. But the point is, they had accomplishments. Washington established us as a nation. Jefferson crafted our vision. Lincoln prevented us from crumbling. Roosevelt elevated our obligation to preserve the natural world.
There are probably other presidents whose likenesses might have been a part of that frieze. I don’t think anyone would nominate Franklin Pierce or Andrew Johnson, but others of our flawed leaders contributed to the advancement of the nation in its imperfect quest for liberty and justice for all.
The Black Hills of South Dakota have been the uninterrupted home to native tribes and nations since long before the United States was a glint of an idea. Rushmore itself was known as the hill of the six grandfathers, a natural formation more obvious (in photos, at least) than the characters of the constellations. As magnificent as the artistic accomplishment is, as principled as the statement is meant to be, it is an encroachment on the land of the Lakota Sioux.
But before that? And before that? Declaring squatters’ rights on (presumed) unoccupied land seems to be a decidedly random standard that rewards longevity and inhibits free migration. There is no argument that can be made about inherent rights to land that does not appeal to a higher authority. For the Israelites, it was God. For the Sioux, it is the Great Spirit. For the United States, it is the law.
When there are competing higher authorities, the result is most often war. Most wars are fought with heavy arms and loss of life. Sometimes, wars are fought with ideas. And while it is not the case that mightier ideas are better ideas, when there is a victor, the test of that victory is the integrity of those ideas and whether they accommodate the losers.
For reasons we cannot know, the Israelites were instructed by their higher authority to respect the territorial integrity of Ammon (the capital city of which is today Amman, Jordan). It was not out of affection or alliance, and it was distinct from the confrontations with Ammon’s neighbors. The Ammonites themselves were both conquerors and vanquished among the regional tribes that claimed the land, and the instruction to avoid “encroachment” may have been out of respect or caution. But what is important is that the Israelites did not put their personal passions above their collective values.
The tribe of Ammon is long gone. Were they to show up today, I doubt that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan would cede their land back to them. But they would be justified in expecting to be accommodated, not dismissed or disparaged, and certainly not mocked.
There is no more room on Rushmore. But if there were, it would not be set aside for a man with no discernible accomplishments who cannot accommodate his opponents, dismisses the higher authority of the law and mocks those who preceded him.
Maybe I shouldn’t be astonished. But I am.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Thus, after you had remained at Kadesh all that long time, Deuteronomy 1:46
I think it is hard to anticipate memory. Unless something profound or traumatizing (or both) occurs, we are hard-pressed to identify what we will remember after a long time has passed.
Last week, my granddaughter called us to tell us that she learned how to ride her bicycle without training wheels. She was extremely excited (even supplanting the first loose tooth of the preceding week). She gave us a step-by-step description of how it happened, including that mysterious moment when uncertainty switched to confidence.
Suddenly, I had a clear recollection of the day I learned to ride my two-wheeler. I had spent the better part of the day trying to balance, believing I was making progress. My father arrived home from work and told me it was time to come into the apartment, and I asked if he’d watch what I could do. Just like that, I took off down the street and rode the whole block, turned around, and rode all the way back. And when I came inside, what did I do? I excitedly called my grandparents with a step-by-step description.
All that long time – all but a few years of my life – I did not think about that specific episode. Reminded of it when I wound up on the other end of a very different telephone, the memory was clear as a bell. This wasn’t déjà vu. This was history repeating itself, on a very small scale.
As I write this column, I have been more or less quarantined for almost four months. Except for one very exciting and somewhat illicit day trip to see our grandkids before they started day camp (and therefore became higher risks to old people like me), the scenery around me has not changed during all that time. I am pretty clear when it is Monday, but after that, I generally have to check my phone to remember the day of the week. Many things have happened, but I am hard-pressed to tell you when.
Four months is not such a long time, certainly not compared to 63 years. And four months is, likewise, not much compared to the thirty-eight years that the liberated Israelites spent wandering the wilderness. We know nothing of those years – from the paralyzing anxiety of the generation that would not enter the Promised Land to the long farewell address that Moses delivers as a new generation prepares to do so. During that time, there were periods of excruciating sameness. The camp was set, the Tabernacle was raised, the manna fell. Even the agitation of sin, so defining in that first year of migration, didn’t merit a mention in the Bible.
I wonder if the adults who had gathered to hear Moses were transported to their childhoods by his recollections. In his long valedictory he will remind them of every place they camped. He will recall somewhat inconsistently the revelation at Sinai. Eventually, he will summon the names and attributes of the great-great-great-(etc.)-grandfathers who gave the tribes their names. Eventually, he will challenge them to choose life contrary to the choices of their parents.
All that long time at Kadesh was the beginning of an historical void for the people, but not for the persons. There were no bicycles, but teeth wiggled, and friendships formed, and love blossomed, and families grieved. Except for shabbat, every day was like every other, a vista in time that paralleled the panorama of the wilderness, challenging the former slaves to fill their own hours the way others had once filled those hours for them.
Somehow the incidental occurrences we take for granted will settle into memory, ready to be recalled. Things happening around us in this unfamiliar terrain are bound to be repeated when the landscape is familiar again, maybe by a giggly five-year-old or by an old guy like me who feels compelled to remind you how things use to be all that long time ago.
The Numbers:13 Project
These are the commandments and regulations that the LORD enjoined upon the Israelites, through Moses, on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho. Numbers 36:13
The other evening, as I relaxed after a long day, I half-listened to one of those breathless network “true-crime” programs. It reported on the tragic saga of a young man who committed suicide after being encouraged by his girlfriend. The correspondent went to great lengths to make both sides of the story sound equally compelling and succeeded at convincing me that two young lives had been wasted.
Saddened though I was by this story, my attention was snagged by the defense attorney’s legal gambit. He was quite insistent that independent of the girl’s intentions and regardless of the contents of the electronic messages she sent to her boyfriend, the charges against her (involuntary manslaughter) were not legitimate because the law did not define encouragement to suicide as a crime. What he did not say, though he didn’t-say it very clearly, was that even if she were guilty of persuading this young man to end his life, her words were not a violation of any applicable law.
I am not a lawyer, and any expertise I have in the law is from studying Talmud, but these fifteen seconds of legal justification struck me as infuriatingly wise. We sometimes decry the minutiae of the law and the way some people manipulate it to their personal gain, but in the end, it is the law which compels us to first act justly. I am all in favor of the discretion of judges to impose an overlay of compassion or outrage when there are extenuating circumstances. (For compassion, see Judge Frank Caprio. For outrage, nobody beats Judge Judith Sheindlin – don’t let the smile fool you.) But the more specific the statute is, the less opportunity there is for abuse.
It can take awhile for the law to catch up with society, and this sorry case is a good example. Most of the exchange between the boy and the girl took place by text. In fact, they were in different cities during the last months of the boy’s decline into fatal depression. Anyone who has jumped to an emotional conclusion after receiving an email that cannot convey a disarming smile, a sarcastic intonation or a stricken look understands that what the reader imposes is rarely what the writer intended. Difficult debates are necessary, not just about public social media, but private electronic communications as well if we are to prevent uncertain circumstances like this from becoming more common.
Jewish law is often denigrated, even by Jews, with the adjective “legalistic,” suggesting that what is served by debate over a point of law is the legal system itself, not the people who must abide by that system. Certainly, there are plenty of examples that look to validate that criticism. I love to study the section of the Mishnah (the compendium of case law based on the application of the Torah) at the very beginning of the section about Shabbat. It discusses carrying between a private and a public domain (think house and street), which is prohibited. But in this detailed articulation, further expanded in Talmudic discussion and commentary, is instruction about how a compassionate householder can feed an itinerant homeless person without either of them running afoul of the restrictions on portage and commerce. One can strictly observe the law – that is, serve the system – and at the same time show compassion to someone in need – that is, serve the person.
Some scholars believe that the original Torah was just four books long. The fifth Book of Moses, Deuteronomy, is a rich source of legal and moral guidance, all placed in the mouth of Moses as his valedictory. But the action ends with the verse above. Maybe the original anthology was meant to convey the very specific limitations of “revealed knowledge” by concluding with verse that heads this column with who, what, when and where (and “why” presumed). But almost immediately, it was pretty clear that there was no such thing as comprehensive law that cannot be challenged by unanticipated circumstances. So – the Fifth Book. And the Talmud. And the codes of Jewish law. And modern and contemporary study and application.
In my professional life, I live with my frustration with those who manipulate the good intentions of laws designed to protect religious minorities from discrimination by dominant religious practice. The crass reinterpretation of statutes designed to protect head coverings and daily prayer breaks has led to the awful consequences that afflict certain people seeking marriage licenses or indicated health care from people with “religious objections.” As an advocate, I am exasperated. As a private Jew, I am intrigued by the debates ahead in the halls of Congress, in state capitals and in every court in the land. We aren’t yet near Deuteronomy on this one!
This is the last column in the Numbers:13 Project, being inspired by the last verse of the last chapter of the book. After a hiatus of some weeks, the final series in this years-long project will commence. Watch for The Last of Deuteronomy, beginning sometime after the secular new year and concluding with fall Jewish holidays.
The Numbers:13 Project
The towns that you thus assign shall be six cities of refuge in all. Numbers 35:13
In these columns, I usually start with something contemporary and find some resonance in the Biblical verse. Ordinarily, I do not interpret and apply the verse as I might in a brief lesson in a synagogue or other religious setting. But I will offer here the exception that proves the rule.
This small verse comes near the end of a long legal instruction about manslaughter – the crime that occurs when one person takes the life of another with neither malice aforethought nor intention. One classic example given in the Bible is when two friends go off to chop wood and, as one is swinging the axe, the head flies off and strikes the other dead. The next-of-kin of the victim has the legal right to take the life of the perpetrator. In order to avoid more bloodshed, the manslayer may flee to one of six designated cities of refuge where their life is protected. The avenging kin is prohibited from harming his prey as long as the person he is chasing remains in the city.
The Biblical Hebrew term for such a city is the same word as “shelter” in modern Hebrew. It is painted on every bomb shelter in Israel, which means you can’t walk five minutes in any populated area without seeing it. The word carries with it the notion that a person seeking such shelter is trying to avoid bodily harm, perhaps specifically death.
But lost in the way we understand the term today is the very important detail in the Biblical story that the pursuing kin has the right to take the life of the pursued perp. That is, the right, but not the obligation. If the boiling blood of the bereaved has cooled, they may choose not to seek the death of the otherwise innocent person. But even if a promise – even if a vow – was exacted from the next-of-kin, should blood boil again, the original risk to the offender remains. That person is and remains a refugee; that person is and remains entitled to refuge.
(There is an end point to this standoff. With the death of the High Priest, mostly a generational event, the slate is wiped clean, presumably because such an occurrence provokes an internal reset for the entire population. Otherwise, the ability to remain a refugee is permanent. And others may decide to live in the city of refuge, even without the need for protection.)
Now, let’s come back to contemporary matters. The politics of how we describe migrant populations are complex. People uproot themselves for all sorts of reasons, but it is rarely out of a simple desire to leave home. Poverty, lack of resources, repression, oppression, ambition, even greed may play into a decision to quit a native land. I myself know many people from multiple generations whose accomplished parents – doctors, professors, engineers, thought-leaders – have given up a life of recognition and security to come to the United States and work in reduced circumstances so that their children could lead a better life. I knew couples who scooped up their young children and moved to remote places after September 11, 2001 out of fear for war against the United States. And I know young people who came to this country to make money, sometimes to bring their families and sometimes to live luxuriously (and sometimes both).
But when someone shows up fearing for their safety, by whatever term we describe them, that person is a refugee. That person needs shelter from a danger that pursues them.
In another town, in another time, I knew an unlikely refugee. She showed up with a young
daughter, and she had a haunted and hunted look. Sure enough, she was fleeing from an
abusive husband who had threatened to take away the little girl and punish -- maybe kill -- his
wife. She adopted an assumed name, cut off communication with friends and family and sought
The details of the story made it sound too lurid to be believable by my young self, not yet a
witness to the deplorable things human beings can inflict on each other, But the community
took in this small and frightened family.
One day, the woman came to my office to tell me her husband had dropped dead, literally. He
was driving somewhere, felt distress, parked his car, rang a stranger’s doorbell and collapsed
on the front step. Gone. And he took with him the fear and despair of his wife. She and her
daughter reclaimed their identities and went on to live their lives. They were able to do so
because strangers offered them refuge without demanding evidence or proof. Had we declined,
they might have been lost, or worse.
Long after the fact, I have realized it didn’t matter if her story was true. She didn’t need to be a
true refugee to live in a city of refuge. The practical function of the city of refuge is to save
innocent lives. But the very existence of such a city is an expression of the values of the society
that provides it.
Woe to those who turn away people claiming to be fleeing for their lives. They may eventually
wash the blood from their hands. But even if there is no blood to wash, they will never warm
their stone-cold hearts.
(Looking for something more uplifting? Visit www.thesixtyfund.weebly.com or click on the link to The Sixty Fund above. Two new awards were made in November 2019.)
The Numbers:13 Project
Moses instructed the Israelites, saying: This is the land you are to receive by lot as your hereditary portion, which the LORD has commanded to be given to the nine and a half tribes. Numbers 34:13
I know that it is improper to reference Woody Allen these days, but sometimes no one else will do. Sue me.
In “Love and Death,” he narrates his father’s obsession with small piece of ancestral land – so small, he was able to carry it with him. The gag recurs (including the Lego-size house that his father builds on the hunk of sod), and Boris (Allen) makes fun of the delusion.
This lampoon of humankind’s attachment to real estate is worth some reflection. Very little in the human experience rivals the possessiveness we feel as individuals, families and national groups to physical territory. The whole of the story of the Israelites in the Five Books of Moses is about our place in The Land. The rest of the Bible, and even beyond, concerns itself with exile and return, exile and return from and to The Land. The liturgy Jews developed to recite three times a day and after every meal and in triumphant proclamation on Yom Kippur and Passover yearns for a return to The Land. The Israeli national anthem, not to mention the theme from the movie “Exodus,” affirm that it is not enough just to be free. We must be free in Our Land (which God gave to me).
And that’s just the Jews.
How many wars have been fought among Christians and among Muslims and between Christians and Muslims over land? And this territorial imperative is not limited to the Abrahamic faiths. On every continent, except maybe Antarctica, faith groups and sub-groups, tribes and clans, peoples of various coloration and real estate moguls have waged conflict with whatever weapons were available in order to secure exclusive control over what they hope to inhabit and/or control.
Viscerally, I understand it. I am a homeowner, and though the piece of land that is mine is a little too large to carry around with me, I feel a connection to My Land that is distinct from everywhere else I go. That feeling is not the same for me anywhere else. I suspect that the former residents have transferred their land-connection to their current homes, but they will always feel the attachment in some way, as I do to Francisco Avenue in Chicago or Clapboard Ridge Road in Danbury. Some of me is in that land, and some of that land is in me.
But intellectually, I struggle with the concept. What is it about a particular piece of real estate that has such a hold on a person or a people? We have a tendency to speak in near-mystical terms about our land but, asked to explain it, we are reduced to waving our hands and relying on metaphor and memory. If I had to give up strawberries, I would be satisfied with blueberries, but I would fight tooth and nail to retain my home, even if offered a nicer place not of my own choosing. I cannot tell you why, but you likely understand.
So much of our sense of security is attached to the land. On the southern border of the United States, on the west bank of the Jordan River, in the Crimea and in so many other places, we insist that the issues have to do with the rule of law or military preparedness or historical authenticity, but it is really about land. It is as if everyone acknowledges that the Bible is accurate when, in the very beginning of the narrative, it connects the formation of the human being (or, as one of my professors preferred, “the earthling”) from the very dust of the earth. Though legend has that dust combining from the four corners (as if) of the earth, individuals and the groups we form seem to believe we have been filled with a very particular patch of earth.
Astronauts train for an existence that is without terra firma beneath them. Some believe they are paving the way for humanity’s eventual departure from this planet, once we have used up the resources that sustain us. I wonder if we will export our fixation on the land with us, or if somehow we will wean ourselves off of this inexplicable obsession.
If we do, I would not be surprised to encounter an old man with a piece of land in his coat pocket, a tiny home clinging to it, that he is willing to defend even at the cost of his life.
The Numbers:13 Project
They set out from Dophkah and encamped at Alush. Numbers 33:16
My friend Ron Wolfson, a most extraordinary Jewish educator, captivated audiences twenty-five years ago by recalling a staple of his youth. It was the “TripTik,” and in the days before GPS, it was the best way to get from point A to point B on America’s highway system.
(It may yet be the best, and TripTik is still a service of “Triple A,” the American Automobile Association.)
The notion behind TripTik was brilliant. Your AAA representative would compile a spiral-bound collection of maps tracking your route in short stretches. If you were to stay on an interstate for 100 miles, you might get a single map with all 100 miles highlighted. But if the exit meant for you put you on a series of different roads, you might have three or four maps for that section of the drive, some covering only a mile or two. By following the yellow-lined road, you could get from your driveway to your destination with ease. Plus, the flip side of each map had lots of information about services, stops and sights.
Ron appropriated the notion and applied it to “Jewish journeys.” He suggested that people usually knew where they were but didn’t always know how to get where they were going. Maybe they wanted to be more comfortable in synagogue. Maybe they had intellectual curiosity about Jewish ideas. Maybe they were looking to feel a part of the community. Maybe they wanted to help repair the world. If educators, including rabbis, could produce a TripTik for people who were on the road, they would likely arrive at their desired destination. And they could choose a direct route, a scenic route or a combination of the two.
My car has a navigation system, and I don’t remember the last time I used paper maps, but I see the value in appreciating the journey and not just the destination. The screen in my car shows me landmarks and exits, but it also urges me to keep up with the estimated arrival time. GPS is all about efficiency, not adventure.
Back in the day (never mind when that day was), my wife and I drove cross-country on our way to live in Los Angeles for a couple of years. It was an adventure, to be sure. We have stories we can still tell – a traffic ticket on Oklahoma delivered by state trooper out of central casting; a motel diner in Oldham County, Texas with a young waitress persuaded her best years were behind her; a chance encounter with a Jew from Flagstaff who begged us to send him bagels; the most elaborate McDonald’s we had ever seen in Barstow. The names are enough to evoke a memory.
And though the longer narrative of places we lived seems more formative, the singular lessons of those brief stops are vivid. “You’re in a heap of trouble,” is not just a movie line. Sadness can be a lifelong affliction. All Jews are responsible for each other. After a long ride across the desert (and before the next leg), you really do deserve a break today.
It is the same for Ron’s Jewish journey. The ordinary circumstance of the resident is the extraordinary experience of the traveler. An invitation to Shabbat dinner. A sermon during a family bat mitzvah. An encounter with a fellow demonstrator at a rally for a just cause. What resonates as home for the denizen is a special event for the visitor.
From Natchez to Mobile, from Memphis to St. Joe, there is a lesson at every stop. Maybe it is a life-lesson (don’t speed in Oklahoma) and maybe it is just a cute anecdote (begging for bagels). From Dophkah to Alush, from Libnah to Rissa, every place on the journey has a story. And the story from that place becomes another enhancement of the next traveler’s TripTik.
The short version of a long trip may celebrate the facts, but it doesn’t accomplish much else. The itinerary from point A to point B, on the other hand, encourages questions and spurs curiosity. That’s important when recalling a journey – your own, your friends’, your peoples’.
The Numbers:13 Project
The LORD was incensed at Israel, and for forty years He made them wander in the wilderness, until the whole generation that had provoked the LORD’s displeasure was gone. Numbers 32:13
I think it is impossible to overestimate the impact of a traumatic experience on any individual or group. In my experience – with myself and with others – the injury that occurs when an assault takes place on body or mind has lasting and unpredictable after-effects.
I offer an example from my own life that I acknowledge is silly, but still present after more than 60 years. I was walking to school when I was in second grade. As I was about to enter the playground, I heard yelling and barking and the clinking of a metal collar and caught sight over my shoulder of a dog running in my direction. My instinct to flee took hold and I began to run, which encouraged the dog to run after me, nipping at my heels. I was terrified. Somehow, the situation was calmed without injury to me, the other students or the dog (which had probably slipped its leash).
But since that day and until I was almost 35, I would only buy shoes that had a substantial heel counter and back stay (those are the parts that cover the back of your foot) in case I ever got chased again by a nipping dog. I was cured only when I was actually bitten by a dog (on my leg), a little yappy thing that almost got booted across the room when I realized what it had done to me completely unprovoked. (No skin was broken, no lawsuit was filed, and the furry little animal was scooped up and whisked away, able to attack another unsuspecting stranger).
Still, whenever I hear the jingling of a dog’s collar, I am transported back to that morning when I was in second grade.
Still not a big fan of dogs, I am embarrassed by the effect of that long-ago incident on my life, and I feel foolish trotting it out when people ask if I mind that their dog sticks a snout between my legs.
A group can be just as traumatized as a person, even if the presenting experience did not happen directly to the current generation. The verse above presents every generation of Bible-believers, most especially Jews, with an awful choice. Either reject the God whose anger sentenced them to die in the desert or live in fear that the same thing could happen to us.
If you have spoken frankly with survivors of the Holocaust, you know that the choice was stark to them. How could they believe in a deity who would sentence them to death? And if they did believe, they dared not do anything to provoke. Three generations later, the Jews still struggle with these possibilities. While we go through life with expectations of “normalcy,” the symbolic jingling of the dog’s collar surfaces a latent historical memory. Most reject the notion of an all-powerful God of vengeance. Some tremble before a God who demands obedience to the details of the law.
We can’t rewrite the Bible, and despite our attempts otherwise we can’t rewrite history. The trauma, real or embellished, has made its mark on us. Its pain abates and retreats but pressing on the trigger point can bring it back in vivid remembrance.
Like a lot of men my age, I look back at relationships that I entered when I was learning my way through love. I hope I was always appropriate. I suspect I was not. All these years later, I imagine that a reminder of me may very well be the jingling of the dog collar to women long out of my life. Having had my heart broken more than once and my reluctance dismissed by aggressive social partners, it is not hard for me to believe that there is someone out there who carries a wound of my making. I hope that if I ever were confronted, I would have the common sense and decency to apologize for my mistakes and selfishness. I know that at this time in my life, I would not be stupid enough to be dismissive.
If someone can still remember being chased by a dog at age seven, then why wouldn’t a woman remember a man who forced himself on her? And if the trauma feels too shameful to announce, why would anyone expect the victim of an invasive crime to acquiesce to the attention that seeking justice would require? Even 3000 years after our ancestors were left to die in the wilderness, we are afraid to speak of the sense of betrayal. It takes a long time not to see victimhood as personal failure.
There are men in our world today whose desperation for power and admiration lead them to forestall any hope of repairing their past transgressions. They prefer to maintain their sense of rectitude by revisiting the past with their own revisionism, pressing on the trigger point, denying the encounter, denigrating the victim – almost always at the moment that courage overcomes embarrassment to bring the event to light.
Contrast that approach with what the Holy One models for us. No cover up, no denial, no avoiding responsibility. And even if an apology is out of character, the desire to restore our relationship even as we remember what caused a rupture is a good model for how to reconcile.