STARS IN THE SKY
The Last of Deuteronomy
Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons in all; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars of heaven. Deuteronomy 10:22
Among the casualties of modern times are analogies to nature. I think “grains of sand on the shore” is still a pretty big number in the minds of most, even when beach erosion and oceanfront construction has made that an objectively smaller comparison. But “cedars of Lebanon,” “the moon to rule the night” and certainly “the mighty Jordan River” (yeah…no) are figures of speech and not the experience of most readers. We have cut down the trees, turned on the lights and diverted the headwaters.
But worst of all is “as numerous as the stars of heaven.” Most of the population of North America live in or near a city of some size. Between the particle contaminants in the atmosphere and the light pollution from homes, office buildings and streetlamps, the abundance of stars we witness is really a fraction of what can be seen in more isolated locations. I was, well, starstruck the first time I looked up at dark in rural Wisconsin and saw the canvas on which the ancients imagined the constellations. And that was nothing compared to looking up from my sleeping bag in the Sinai desert on a moonless night and recognizing both my insignificance and my privilege in viewing that tableau.
More than a dozen years ago, at a synagogue event, my three kids offered their interpretations of my favorite verse from the Bible, Psalm 147:3-4, “the healer of broken hearts and binder of their wounds counts the number of stars and calls each one by name.” They rightly identified all the reasons it so appealed to me, and correctly noted that in another life I would have loved to have been an astronaut. Wow, to be a bit of protoplasm built of stardust, returning to the endless void that birthed us all! And still, floating untethered by any visible means to anything else, I might give off my own faintest of light that would, after billions of years, reach some distant destination to take my place among the uncountable stars and other objects beheld by others aspiring to the heavens!
Yeah, pretty over the top. But on a clear night at sea, on a mountaintop or in an isolated wilderness, you, too, would know what I mean.
A small number of people get to live some version of that dream. They spend a period of time in the International Space Station, orbiting the planet and performing the research that has already expanded the breadth and depth of human knowledge immeasurably. I imagine that the cramped quarters and isolation from human contact other than the few gets old pretty quickly. (Actually, there is less to imagine than there used to be before covid-19!) But would I do it, even today? In a heartbeat.
Fortunately, the flight of my imagination is easier to visualize despite light pollution and hazy skies. I installed an app on my phone that tracks the space station and tells me where to look in the night sky when it passes overhead. A point of light – neither twinkling like a little star nor blinking like a big old jet airliner – travels among the points of light making an arc from horizon to horizon. (You can find it for your device at https://www.issdetector.com/). On those nights that it passes over my house, I look up and watch it sail across the sky. Do I wave? Of course.
When the phrase “as numerous as the stars of heaven” was coined, nothing was known about them beyond the conjecture of a pre-scientific culture. When the assertion was made that God could count their number and name each one, you can be assured those names did not include Alpha-Centauri or Betelgeuse. The night-time sky was a welcome mystery, an analogue for the slightly less mysterious process of being fruitful and multiplying.
Today I cannot fathom how the letters I type on a keyboard wind up on a screen and then, at the push of a button, are whisked around the world. Someone has figured out the number of 1s and 0s and given each a name, creating constellations of information greater than the population to which we aspire. But as impressed as I am by that process, it pales next to awe I feel looking out on a moonless night hoping for a glimpse of the source of the stardust that bears my name.
The Last of Deuteronomy
Yet they are Your very own people, who You freed with Your great might and Your outstretched arm. Deuteronomy 9:29
Back in 1993, there was a wonderful little movie called “Indian Summer.” The plot was predictable, the cast was remarkable and one moment has stuck out for me for all these years. The camp director (Alan Arkin) was renowned for knowing the name of every camper. How did he keep all those kids straight? He would put his hand on the back of the neck of anyone he was talking to and gently peek at the name stamped inside their tee-shirt.
Who knows whether that is or was a camp director trick? But the notion that someone in charge knows your name is exceptionally affirming.
Rabbi Yaakov Rosenberg, of blessed memory, was a man larger than life – quite literally. “Yonk,” as we all knew him, was a big bear of a man. When he was driving, his car of choice was the Checker, those oversized cars with room in the back for four on the bench and two jump seats. Just as there was room in a Checker cab for six or more passengers, there seemed to be room in Yonk’s head and heart for an infinite number of acquaintances. If he met you once, he knew your name. If you ever told him your birthday, you would get a call or a card every year. If you shared the name of your beloved aunt in Poughkeepsie, Yonk would ask you about her whenever he saw you.
I once saw him stand in the middle of the ballroom of the Concord Hotel in the Catskills surrounded by 400 rabbis, ranging in age from 25 to 80. In order to raise some money for a project in Israel, he called out each rabbi’s name to find out their pledge. It was the most remarkable display of recall I had ever seen. He didn’t even have to check the inside of their shirts.
There was a time when my mind was more agile that I had a version of that superpower. I spent a year working part-time running weekend programs at a Jewish camp for families. At the first gathering, I would ask each family to introduce its members, and those names were mine all weekend. Unlike Yonk, I did (what would today be called) a data-dump every Sunday to make room for the next week’s visitors. And I knew better than to try to peek inside anybody’s tee-shirt.
Most of us are not blessed with Rabbi Rosenberg’s remarkable recall and the camp director’s trick would probably have us calling each other Nordstrom or Eileen Fisher. Yet, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of trying to remember peoples’ names. The power of naming is one of the first gifts to humanity noted in the story of creation, an acknowledgment not merely of identity, nor even of importance, but also of place in the world.
Anyone who has spent any time in the public eye knows the challenge of such recall. In my case, my years as a rabbi in a synagogue and an occasional itinerant speaker brought me into contact with tens of thousands of people, the vast majority of them guests at some life-cycle event or audience members at a lecture or panel discussion. If I had the good fortune to have said something that touched them (or the poor fortune to insult them!) they may have sought me out afterward for a conversation. That interaction was unique for them, a chance to have a singular personal encounter. For me, it might have been one of a dozen or more such interactions in less than an hour’s time.
I have been on the other side of those interactions myself. I have stood on rope lines and met public figures, or been invited to conversations with thought leaders, or taken a class with scholars of renown. The power of the handshake, the exchange or the in-class question that earned praise and response is lasting for me. There is always hope, but never expectation, that the momentary encounter will take up residence in the other person’s front-line memory.
It is painful on both sides when I have to ask someone to remind me who they are. Inevitably, they are embarrassed that they placed more importance on our previous encounter that I did. Inevitably, I make some kind of apology about my own shortcomings in not remembering. At that moment I always remember Yonk and the gift he had to affirm every acquaintance.
This little verse teaches that lesson as Moses recounts his pleading for the backsliding people to an angry God. They aren’t merely ingrates; they believe themselves important, individually and collectively, because God did for them what God does. God just needed to be reminded of who they are.
GOD HATES YOU
The Last of Deuteronomy
Like the nations that God will cause to perish before you, so shall you perish – because you did not heed the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 8:20
There is an independent Baptist church in the Midwest that has gained national notoriety by carrying a message of hate to every corner of the country. Unlike a lot of groups that are accused of purveying hate, this church is up front about it. Its picket signs are familiar at gay pride events, military funerals, the Supreme court and, why not, synagogues. At least one slogan among the many always includes the message “GOD HATES (your characteristic here).”
I have spent no time reflecting on their theology, which is somewhat peculiar for adherents of a tradition that celebrates God’s love and grace. But were I someone who read the Bible both literally and selectively, I could identify the exact place that would undergird the message of a vengeful deity who demands total obedience.
It’s this last verse of chapter 8 of Deuteronomy, and reading it brought this renegade band of proud hatemongers immediately to mind.
Ideas like this are a difficult challenge for people of faith. There is a temptation for believers to swat them away by claiming a broader context, or a superseding set of scriptural texts, or a different revelation, but this angry rhetoric turns up in more than one place and in more than one tradition. Whether you are convinced that your sacred text is divinely written or the product of inspired human transmission, suggesting a verse like this is not determinative requires denial or intentional misinterpretation.
It’s a pretty terrorizing assessment of the relationship between God and the devoted. In fact – forgive me the blasphemy – it sounds downright abusive. “I will love you and provide for you, but if you don’t do what I say, I will punish you, maybe even kill you.” It doesn’t matter what the nature of the transgression is (in this instance, it is alienation of appreciation and infidelity), such a conversation between lovers would be grounds for a restraining order. Okay, I am finished with the blasphemy.
I have no obligation to defend God, not that the Holy One needs it to begin with. The verse is not the only description of the consequences of transgression in the Bible, and it strikes me as an attempt to set boundaries that might be crossed by those who would presume an uninvited familiarity or, worse, parity with the Divine. For someone predisposed to seeing this warning as definitive, it is proof positive. But there is no denying that for someone predisposed to God-as-love, verses like this mean pretty tough love.
The members of that church must find some strange satisfaction in lifting up the dangerous side of devotion. Just as I can’t explain away the harshness of the Biblical threat, I can’t explain away the hatefulness of these believers. But if I am skeptical of their message, then I must be skeptical of anyone else who limits the nature of a limitless God. I will stick with mystery over certainty. There is less pressure to be correct.
But I do have a reaction to the public theology of these midwestern fanatics. I won’t respond in kind. I don’t find much satisfaction in going head-to-head with people determined to have such a sour view of humanity and such an unpleasant sense of rectitude about God.
They have been more successful than any of us hope (maybe except them). The mantra of “GOD HATES (insert political opponent here)” has gained favor throughout the land, part of the politics of confrontation that began at least three administrations ago with a set of angry and unscrupulous leaders of the House of Representatives. Their confrontational, take-no-prisoners style, combined with a set of ethics from Roy Cohn, have encouraged the right and the left alike to embrace abusive behavior. And what is worse is that at least some of them do it in the name of their reading of the Bible.
The human family has managed to splinter into enough subgroups to cover modern expressions of “the nations God will cause to perish.” That they are still alive and thriving, including that midwestern church, is a pretty good indication that the verse in question is not literally operative. This verse would not be the first pronouncement of absolutism that has been reconsidered, even by God, and certainly not the last. Maybe it is time to try something else.
The Last of Deuteronomy
You must not bring an abhorrent thing into your house, or you will be proscribed like it; you must reject it as abominable and abhorrent, as He has commanded us. Deuteronomy 7:26
Detestable, repugnant, loathsome, revolting, hateful, vile, abominable. We have so many words in English to express our disgust at something that is meant to be kept outside of our circle. The sense of revulsion with which these words are saturated is palpable.
People with less-sophisticated word choices will often choose an obscenity associated with bodily effluence and either pack it in a sack or minimize it to a single piece to get the same point across. The listener will understand the same sense of revulsion.
There are other words that have acquired derisive meanings, especially when they are attached to human beings different from the speaker. Washington, DC’s professional football team just dropped its name and mascot because of such a meaning – never mind that the guy who named it almost a century ago thought it was a compliment. Asians have been slurred with a roster of names that are remarkably specific geographically. I’m not sure whether Arabs should be pleased or insulted that the scornful names they are called do not discriminate among their nations or cultures. Natives of Central and South America already had their own collection of disparaging slanders before they were pasted with “criminals, rapists, and drug-dealers” in the last presidential campaign. Even Europeans, when they are too closely identified with stereotypical personality traits courtesy of localized bigotry, find themselves called by some derivative of their country or culture when neighbors wish to diminish them.
How can I write about these noxious nicknames without mentioning the two groups that seem to suffer most, especially in the United States?
White people have been so effective in labels of oppression that there is still no lasting consensus, even among Black people, of what the appropriate way is to describe a person of African heritage. Even with the slowly evolving consensus that some names are intolerable, in my lifetime the respectful way to refer to members of the Black community has changed at least six times. If you need proof that the adage “names will never hurt me” is a bald-faced lie, this ought to be it. Of course, the infamous “n-word,” so pervasive that even Black subculture has adopted it, remains the most reprehensible utterance in modern discourse.
In fact, it is so inappropriate that some years ago a (White) public official in DC used a synonym for “cheap” in a budget discussion – niggardly – and lost his job because of the uproar. Though he was later reinstated, I cannot remember seeing that word again since then until I typed it here.
The other group, of course, is my own: the Jews. Even our proper name – Jew – is a slang term for, uh, niggardly. When playing Scrabble, you cannot use Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jain, or Buddhist (and not because, like Zoroastrianism or Scientology, they are too long), but “jew” is perfectly acceptable in the meaning of trying to get an undeserved bargain. The collection of derogatory names is so comprehensive that it is almost impossible to make reference to Jews without someone, somewhere hearing a dog-whistle. There are even some (not I) who believe the word “Jew” should never be used; collectively we are “the Jewish community” and individually we are “Jewish.”
Today, rightly so, people are exquisitely sensitive to the connotations of name-calling. It is bigoted behavior to use a slur, and even the deployment of those labels in art, entertainment or protest are less and less tolerable. Using them to indicate that someone is detestable is dehumanizing and itself detestable.
It is a truth that the Bible commands us dozens of times to consider the stranger (that is, someone different from ourselves) with love and kindness because we know what it is like to be strangers to others. No one should use crude and hateful names for someone, especially someone we mean to embrace.
The phrase for “abominable” in the verse above is shakeitz t’shak’tzena. It is from this phrase that the colloquial way some Jews refer to non-Jewish women and men is derived. A shiksa is a detestable thing. A sheigetz is an abomination. Never, ever, ever use those words.
The Last of Deuteronomy
It will therefore be to our merit before the Lord our God to observe faithfully this whole instruction, as He has commanded us. Deuteronomy 6:25
In my work, I spend a lot of time with a small part of the Constitution of the United States. The first two clauses of the First Amendment deal with the vexing role of religion in society. Lots of breath has been exhaled and even more ink spilled on what it means to freely exercise spiritual conscience and even more on the question of what “establishment” means, and by whom.
But it is absolutely true that even if I consider those two phrases the essence of liberty, they aren’t the only rights in that amendment, and they are far from the only concerns of the Constitution – even without the amendments that followed the original ten.
Advocates far to my right politically and theologically insist that the primacy of position is indisputable evidence of primacy of authority. Yet, as committed as I am to the place of religion and faith, I recognize that the United States is governed by the whole of the document. It is the Constitution that contextualizes its parts, not any one or more parts that contextualize the Constitution.
Though I think about this notion a lot, I have been thinking about it more in these weeks since the death of Cong. John Lewis, of truly blessed memory. The cadre of civil rights pioneers is dwindling – we have now lost three in this past year – and the retrospectives on their lives have brought comparisons to my mind. I have nothing but admiration for the likes of Reverends Joseph Lowrey and C.T. Vivian (both of whom it was my honor to meet), the other two luminaries we lost this year. Their devotion to the cause of voting rights, full equality for all citizens and the beloved community was played out almost entirely in the communities they chose/were chosen to service: the Black community. I see them as analogous to the role of Rabbi Avi Weiss in his Jewish community – insisting that he has an obligation to Jews and their interests that is no less than his obligation to others.
Mr. Lewis – whom I was privileged to know – had a more holistic approach. He was a man completely opposed to inequality and inequity. It is fair to say that his voice was most appreciated by the Black community and therefore highlighted most when his life and legacy were discussed. But John’s commitment to the dignity of every person was unbounded by race. He was a willing ally (and even a leading voice) of people of all faiths, nationalities, orientations and philosophies. His trust in the American ethos was such that he believed it had room to protect and celebrate even those with whom he disagreed – except if they sought to frustrate those protections and celebrations. It may have seemed to some that “his issue” was civil rights or, even more narrowly, voting rights. But you don’t get to be known as the Conscience of Congress as a one-issue advocate.
I will never be the man John Lewis was, though he remains an example to me of the power of personal integrity. He went deeper into that integrity as his perspective widened. His commitment to all people being created equal was not limited to his own interests, rather in principle and practice to all of the human family. He believed in all of the Constitution and the just laws that flowed from it, that is, the whole thing. He could not abide those who would insist that those parts that benefited their privilege could be defended as more important than the mission of our nation: to secure the blessings of liberty to (all of) us and our (entire) posterity.
I deeply believe that the protection of conscience (which is what “free exercise” is all about) and the protection from enforced beliefs (which is what “non-establishment” is all about) are core values. Without them, the Constitution is incomplete. But I can make the same claim about seemingly less-universal concerns like Congress’s ability to set the President’s compensation, or the prohibition of alcohol and subsequent repeal, or the minimum age of suffrage.
We are often bombarded with the outrage of people whose religious autonomy I seek to defend. Some insist that reproductive health care policy should be governed by their faith perspective. Some insist that other religious traditions than their own present a threat to their notion of America. Some insist that they have a protected right to celebrate their faith in public circumstances at public expense. I believe they seek to privilege themselves at the cost of the whole Constitution. The irony, perhaps, is that Constitution cannot be upheld only by the actions of one person or one subset of people. The whole thing demands the whole thing.
I also believe that the verse that prompts my thinking means the same thing within a faith tradition – in this case, my own. Some insist that a ritual observance is the necessary and sufficient part of the Torah. Some insist a particular mandate to pursue justice or love your neighbor is all you need. Some insist there are only ten mandates that mean anything, or a singular expectation to love the Creator. Nonsense. It is to our merit collectively, and with our best integrity individually, to faithfully uphold the whole thing.
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.