Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
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.
The Numbers:13 Project
Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the chieftains of the community came out to meet them outside the camp. Numbers 31:13
Every time my grandchildren come to visit (driven by their parents, of course), my wife and I wait anxiously for them to arrive. When the car pulls up to our house, invariably, no matter the weather, we come out the front door to get the earliest possible hugs.
There are some few other guests who get that kind of welcome. But unless someone is schlepping large or heavy packages, we generally allow them to approach the house in their own time. That’s why we have a doorbell.
I mean no reference to Seinfeld when I suggest that we are the masters of our domain. It is up to us whether we admit a visitor (even if that visitor used to be a resident!). And other than our perfect grandchildren, there are two different reasons we might try to intercept someone on the way to our door.
The first is to show particular respect or honor. A much-anticipated visitor who is especially loved or missed might very well be accompanied on those last few steps as an expression of special welcome. It is as if to say, symbolically, I am coming to retrieve you from afar and escort you to my home. In story and song, from the Bible to Broadway, a delegation that goes out to meet the arriving or returning dignitary is an indication of deference and celebration.
The second is to express caution. A person’s home is their refuge and the place in which their most precious family members reside. It is a place of privacy and safety, and it contains their valuables – not just material goods, but also memories of a life lived. A delegation that steps out of the front door, closing it behind, to prevent arriving visitors from stepping up to the threshold, issues an unspoken warning: leave any hostilities outside or I will not admit you.
The householder is always in the position of power. Whether that power is used deferentially or as a deterrent, the decision is theirs to deploy it or withhold it.
This dynamic is not only literal. It is also symbolic. When the house is not just a house, the arriving outsider may be just as surely welcomed or warned.
Think about a house of worship. In my tradition, that is the synagogue. Years ago, when our neighbor Presbyterians quit their church for a months-long renovation, they moved in with us. On a designated Sunday, they made the walk of a few blocks to their temporary home. Waiting for them outside to usher them in were leaders and members of the synagogue community. We greeted them with “Welcome home.” The awaiting delegation made a profoundly loving start to a season of very close quarters.
These days, if you approach the same house of worship, you will find that the householders have someone to meet you on the way in, too – a sheriff’s deputy, whose presence is meant to reassure the arriving worshipers of their safety, and to deliver the message to leave any hostilities outside or I will not admit you. It is an unfortunate response to a climate of fear.
The same contrast is true when the house is not actually a house. Institutions have householders, gatekeepers who decide who gets admitted and who does not. They can flex their muscle by controlling the approach as well as the admission. From the bouncer on the rope line at a club to the majority leader of a legislative body, these power holders can determine who will be welcomed and who will be frustrated. Some will enjoy the dance, and others will be excluded from the very process.
It is worth thinking about the messages that come with greeting those who arrive at your house when you step outside the front door. Are you making a show of power or of delight – or even both.
All of this applies to every circumstance except one. If our delicious grandchildren show up at your place, rush to get your hugs. Don’t waste a minute on ceremony.