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.