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.
The Numbers:13 Project
But if her husband does annul them on the day he finds out, then nothing that has crossed her lips shall stand, whether vows or self-imposed obligations. Her husband has annulled them, and the LORD will forgive her. Numbers 30:13
Over the years, I have had conversations with people who have described their marriages in terms unfamiliar to me. Specifically, one spouse or another had the power of veto over decisions made by the other. I just don’t get it.
An acquaintance of mine, many years ago, told me that his wife had decided to get a business degree. They had two children in elementary school, and she took classes around their schedule, studying at night after their bedtime and in any spare moment she could find. One day, as she and her husband were on their way to a social occasion on a local highway, he said to her, “I think you should just throw those books out the window and give up this business thing.” She did. He was very proud of that story.
Yes, it was most often the husband who had this authority over his wife. But there have also been circumstances in which a husband has made a commitment and later called me to say that his wife had reversed his decision. (I simply do not have enough experience with two men or two women to know if that kind of power is ever vested in one person or the other.)
I’m not talking about a deliberated compromise. I hope every couple has discussions about priorities and commitments. I mean exactly the kind of situation described in the verse above: one person made an autonomous decision, and the other person reversed it.
This is the stuff of sitcoms, I have to say. George Jefferson ordering ‘Weezy, Ralph Kramden commanding Alice, Maude instructing Walter. Except at the end of 26 minutes, comeuppance is a guarantee. Even when we laugh, nobody puts up with that malarkey in the end.
This kind of presumed authority is thinly-disguised spousal abuse. The removal of personal autonomy in decision-making by one partner is a denigration of the humanity of the other. Surrendering the ability to make “vows and self-imposed obligations” – especially after the fact – invalidates personal competence and judgment. It creates a hierarchy of basic human dignity which, by all measures, violates the equality of all people.
In my work I encounter any number of faith traditions that affirm that a wife must submit to the authority of her husband. (These traditions have less experience than I with single-sex couples.) While there are any number of places in the Bible that they cite justification, none is more explicit than this one. The usual explanation, perhaps better described as a rationalization, is that men are better suited to decision-making than women.
In communities governed by rules like these, the prophecy is self-fulfilling. Wives (and women in general) second-guess their own judgment, having been taught it is inferior to their husbands’. In turn, they teach their daughters and granddaughters to defer to the men in their lives.
Even in “enlightened” traditions, the vestiges of this hierarchy remain. Women’s teachings may be overruled by men’s. Female devotees serve the male clergy who are the only conduits to the divine. Women do not serve as judges or as members of a quorum. No matter how it is justified or explained away, the female partner is less-than. And when the male partner becomes less-than, he is depicted as female, to add insult to injury.
I know that it is easy to be critical, especially since we live in a time when pushing back on these teachings is considered the moral and righteous thing to do. But the attitudes and practices we are correcting are deeply embedded in our cultures, our traditions and, according to the tenets of faith, our sacred and inviolable literature. What do we do with them?
It is not enough, I am afraid, to assert our presumed authority over such a text. The result of a flat rejection may be satisfying for the person who feels righteously above the text, but it will do little to persuade the woman or man who feels bound by sacred instruction. It is also insufficient to suggest that people being disadvantaged by these teachings – most of them women – to ”give it time.”
Instead, men and women alike need to model and instruct the right kind of behavior and accompanying attitudes. It is especially true for opinion leaders – public figures, clergy, people in charge. Just as we no longer hang a transgressor, stone a stubbornly rebellious son or allow for revenge killings, we must say unequivocally that these windows into past conduct are sacred because of their origin, not because of their relevance.
That’s an attitude that probably dissatisfies everyone a little bit. But its my story, and I am sticking to it.
The Numbers:13 Project
You shall present a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD: Thirteen bulls of the herd, two rams, fourteen yearling lambs; they shall be without blemish. Numbers 29:13
Human societies have a long and complicated relationship with numbers. We like to count things and then assign significance to the totals and the way we can divvy them up. Perhaps numbers are the last vestige of the human family (as depicted in the Bible) before it fractured into different languages and tribe. Mathematical patterns are a universal means of expression. Though they are essentially without nuance, they can be used to express music, color and physical relativity that can capture profound insights.
Though I am not much of a whiz at math, nonetheless I have a fascination with numbers, too. Like my friend Don, I take delight in gematria (with a hard “g”), the “science” that finds relationships between words in Hebrew with the same numerical value. (Every letter in Hebrew has an assigned value, so if you add up the numbers in, say, chokhmah – 8+20+40+5 = 73 – you will find it to be the same as hachayyim – 5+8+10+10+20. Chokhma means “wisdom,” hachayyim means “the life.” Therefore, there must be a link between wisdom and life.) Gematria can get pretty complicated and has implications for students of the Jewish mystical tradition. I find it a useful excuse to find connections among ideas, such as “wisdom” and “life.”
We assign significance to numbers that are not inherent, rather that recognize our values. To be #1 in any field of endeavor means dominance or, at least, arriving earliest. Seven is both prime and complete. Ten is comprehensive. Name almost any number and it will have significance for someone – a batting streak, a weight goal, an hourly wage, the roster of Biblical commandments.
But sometimes a number is just a number. I had a conversation with a friend of mine about our ages. “You are only as old as you feel,” he said to me (an observation that he was quick to acknowledge was not original). “That’s irrelevant,” I replied. “Some days I feel like a teenager and some days I feel like an old man. But my age is my age, a neutral fact.” The nuance of that number is not carried by the digits; it is meaning imputed (in this case) by an attitude about age.
When I look at the number of offerings and sacrifices designated by the Bible for various occasions, I am frequently mystified. The descending totals for the seven days of Tabernacles (which the verse above begins) has a meaning as self-evident as the last verse of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” And the time necessary to slaughter and roast 29 animals in the Temple precincts would probably take up the whole of the day for the priestly personnel. But the numbers mean something, even if that meaning has been lost to time and speculation.
There is one type of significance to numbers that is assigned by Jewish tradition that strikes me as a recognition of the neutral value of those numbers. There is a strong opposition to counting people – that is, reducing their uniqueness to a number. Even in determining the number of people present for a minyan (quorum), it is not permissible to assign each one a number. Instead, a ten-word phrase is used, or the counting is preceded by “not” (not-one, not-two, etc.). Only when the purpose of counting is for a divinely-mandated purpose – building the Temple, entering the Promised Land – may a census be conducted, but even then within the tribal memberships rather than a general counting.
It is therefore not without irony that the English name of this book is “Numbers.” (In Hebrew it carries the traditional name, taken from the first word of significance, “Bemidbar,” “In the wilderness.”) The numbers in Numbers are abundant and call out for interpretation, perhaps because they seem somehow random.
But the numbers themselves are neutral, digits that represent quantity or order or something that bears meaning assigned rather than inherent. That open-ended fact makes it somehow wonderful that numbers exist without limit.
The Numbers:13 Project
As meal offering for each lamb: a tenth of a measure of fine flour with oil mixed in. Such shall be the burnt offering of pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the LORD. Numbers 28:13
Like most men I know, I believe I can look at a something labeled “some assembly required” and succeed in that “some assembly” with little or no guidance. When I get a new piece of electronic wizardry, I am always glad to find that there are two sets of instructions – the comprehensive user’s manual and the quick-start guide; I don’t need either of them. And when tasked with following a recipe, I need only two measuring devices – a tablespoon and a 1-cup measure – because I have a good eye for how much to fill each if the recipe calls for a teaspoon or a quarter-cup of something.
I am confident in my abilities because, though I have no formal training in these skills, both of my grandfathers were very good with their hands. Plus, I can visualize things in my head.
At the core of the assumptions about all of these various assembling activities is the cavalier attitude of “how hard can it be?” Hammers and nails, Allen wrenches and wood screws, flour and salt, these are ingredients that anyone with a modicum of common sense can figure out how to put together.
Similarly, what prevents me from being a good actor, an admired singer, a talented dancer? Sure, not everyone is DeNiro, Dion or Hough, but how hard can it be to recite your lines, carry a tune or tap your feet?
And if you can ride a bike, you can drive a car. If you can drive a car, you can skipper a boat. If you can skipper a boat (and play a video game), you can pilot a plane. How hard can it be?
I am, of course, wrong about all those things. Be glad I did not become a surgeon.
Some few people in any discipline have natural talent. My late friend Fred could pick up almost any musical instrument and play it well. He took clarinet lessons – his first love – but played the banjo and the piano without any instruction. My cousin Ben can build anything you describe to him like some combination of MIT and MacGyver. My wife can make a technical report read like a Steven King novel.
But mostly, to be good at something, you have to follow directions and learn from a few mistakes (like skipping the instructions). Even the people with exceptional natural talent (in fact, especially those people) will warn you off pretending that you know more than you do. Anyone who has baked a cake without follow the recipe carefully will tell you how unhappy the results are with just a little too much of this or a little too little of that.
It may wind up being a burnt offering, but it is not of pleasing odor.
When the founders of our country wrenched the government from the hands of kings and despots, they wrote out the recipe for the plain old citizens who entered public service to follow. To be sure, government has gotten considerably more complicated since Alexander Hamilton decided not to throw away his shot, but there are no ingredients that can be left out of the Constitution. Lots of people have held office so successfully that they make it look easy. Of course, if we could ask Washington or Lincoln, Shirley Chisholm or Barbara Jordan, Oliver Wendell Homes or Thurgood Marshall if their leadership was as effortless in providing as it appeared in the result, they would laugh. Anyone who came to that conclusion by observing only the result of careful preparation and methodical effort would likely be as superficial as that perception.
And yet, there remain people who look at positions of great responsibility for the nation and its citizens and ask, “How hard can it be?” Willfully ignorant of the Constitution and stubbornly uninformed, they believe the quick-start guide is for incompetents and the user’s manual is for morons.
I don’t want to sit on the chair assembled by the guy who skipped the directions. I don’t want to suffer through a concert by the person whose vocal training is a morning shower. I don’t want to ski behind a boat navigated by someone who learned on a Schwinn. Maybe they have the natural talent of my cousin Ben, but if it turns out they don’t, and they are endangering us all, someone should take away
the hammer, the mic or the keys.
In the process, we just might restore the Constitution.
When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was.
Like every rabbi, I have attended to bereaved family members in almost every circumstance of death. Some deaths approach slowly and inevitably, like a train arriving across a plain with a distant horizon. Some deaths burst onto the scene like a balloon popping at a birthday party. Illness, accident, age, crime, self-infliction – mostly all they have in common is the finality of the result.
One set of experiences involved a woman who lost her mother to a protracted battle with cancer. Weeks of hospitalizations preceded the agonizing last days when life slipped away by inches. Some few years later, her father collapsed suddenly during a vacation and could not be revived. I asked her which was better – the chance to say goodbye, but watching her mother suffer, or the sudden loss of a vital presence in her life without the opportunity for a last moment. Her response: They both suck.
It is so like us as human beings to cast everything in terms of how it affects us. But what about the person facing death? Other than convicted perpetrators of capital crimes, no one among us knows the day of their death. There are plenty of pieces of advice about living as if today were your last day, but they, too, do not really imagine the impending moment.
(The best-known Jewish teaching: Repent one day before your death. And since no one knows the day of their death, repent today.)
I understand the impetus of people who face a proximate death to seek out pleasurable experiences. Whether it is a visit to an exotic place, a special meal, a sensual indulgence, time with loved ones or whatever, the focus on compacting experiences of life into an abbreviated timeline is understandable from people who cling to life.
But imagine being told the day you will die – maybe not the exact date, but the events that will point to the time your time will come. Imagine there will be no option for distraction, no diversion from the inevitable, no swerving off the road to finality. A cue will present itself: a horn will sound, a light will flash, a word will be spoken out of context or – as our case in point – you will arrive at your destination, see it and die. (For those unfamiliar with the reference in the verse, Moses was instructed to accompany his brother to the top of a hill, remove Aaron’s priestly vestments and place them on Aaron’s son. Aaron did not come down the hill.)
It is a cliché that when faced with mortal danger, your life passes before your eyes. Maybe it is true; the entire Book of Deuteronomy is a description by Moses of the events of his life since leaving Egypt in enough detail to last almost all of the 959 verses. But what would you discover?
I suspect (and I take the clue from this very verse) that I will stand before the evidence of what is left undone in my life. Not for lack of trying, not for lack of good intention, and not merely because there comes a time when any one life, including mine, will come to an end. Simply, the day after you die the sun will rise and set just as it did every day since you emerged into this world. Each of us is a part of things much larger than ourselves.
I am not making a case against mourning nor arguing for resignation at our inherently unfinishable lives. Instead, I am making a case for something just short of immortality. Leaving something incomplete makes it necessary for someone else – another life – to pick up where we left off. You likely won’t get to choose who that other life is, and you will have no control over the direction that other life takes. But every relinquishing facilitates a renewal.
For those left behind – the bereaved – loss and broken-heartedness is normal and necessary. With or without a chance to conclude a relationship, the empty space in the next-day’s world is a reminder of what has come to an end.
But I hope that on the day you will die, even if you love life as much as I do (which is a lot), you will discover what Moses did: that others are waiting to pick up what you left off and that, in that way, you are a participant in the fulfillment of the life you are about to surrender.
I usually have something political to say as part of these columns, and this one is no exception, so if you are satisfied with this little life meditation, stop reading now.
I have never been a fan of the bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” I can’t think of anything worse to suggest to a child who already has concerns about what lurks in the darkness, “if I should die before I wake…” The traditional bedtime ritual for Judaism includes a similar representation, though a little less ominous. But I get the intention. As Don McLean (almost) sang, “This [could be] the day that I die.”
Cultivating an awareness of work left undone ought to make someone a little conscientious about how to spend their day. But here’s the fact: the person whose energy is devoted to serving himself is likely to realize on the day he dies that the only work left undone is deconstructing what he left behind.
The Numbers:13 Project
of Zerah, the clan of the Zerahites; of Saul, the clan of the Saulites. Numbers 26:13
I know I am giving away both my age and my sense of humor when I mention Allan Sherman. The spiritual mentor of Weird Al Yankovic, Sherman elevated the song parody to a national phenomenon. He mostly (in his early work) parodied the songs of the first half of the twentieth century – not surprising, since he grew up then.
I knew most of the originals from the parodies. Songs like “You Went the Wrong Way, Old King Louis” and “Streets of Miami” made such an impression on me that I was surprised to learn there were original lyrics. (I had to ask my parents what was so funny about the line “he was trampling through the warehouse where the drapes of Roth are stored,” a skewer of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”)
But no song tickled me as much as “Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max.” It is a riff on “Dear Old Donegal,” an Irish pop tune about a man who returns to Donegal after trying out America and is reintroduced to his neighbors Branigan, Flannigan, Milligan, Gilligan and all sorts of others. But I never heard the original until much later. Instead, I committed to memory the Allan Sherman version about a salesman who returns to Brooklyn (so that’s where Ocean Parkway is!) after his long and lonesome season on the road. His mother is there to reintroduce Levin, Levinsky, Levine and Levi…Stein with an "e-i" and Styne with a "y."
Aside from being a play on the Irish ditty, the song is a not-so-subtle reference to the proclivity of Jews (and others, I suspect) to try to draw connections with people they meet. Stand near two Jewish strangers at a social gathering and eventually you will hear an exploration that begins either with “do you know” or “are you related to.” My last name is pretty unusual in the Jewish community (but familiar to Swedes), so it’s not so farfetched for someone who knows my siblings or cousins to ask me if I am connected to another Moline. But Stein with an “e-i” and Styne with a “y” (from Brooklyn) can provoke an adventure of six degrees or fewer of separation.
Maybe this behavior is a benign parody of the long section of the second census in the Book of Numbers. The twelve tribes of Israel are called by the name of their patriarchs, and afterward the then-current chieftain and then his sons. The families (clans) of the sons are each noted by the name of the current patriarch. Those descended from Zerah, the Zerahites. Those descended from Saul, the Saulites. Well…duh.
The tribes had their territory and the clans had their homesteads. The merchant who returned with his caravan could shake hands with his Uncle Zerah and meet cousins from other tribes – Naphtali, Issachar, Judah and Gad. Jewish geography may not be quite the modern phenomenon we think it is.
A well-known rabbi, so well-known that I won’t identify him, once said that the only false words in the prayer book are chaveirim kol yisrael, which means (a little too literally) “all Jews are friends.” But taking that notion more literally than it is meant brings me back to Allan Sherman’s song. He may not have been so happy to see cousin Isabel (that’s Irving’s oldest girl) or the Tishman twins, Gerald and Jerome, but they all came out to greet him and to wish him welcome home.
Maybe that’s part of the intrigue of the DNA-mapping technology that various companies market. So far, my sample has identified 1216 relatives, about five of which I knew about. Sooner or later I will find out if I am a Zerahite or a Saulite or any of the other -ites who left Egypt. (I already know I am 99% Ashkenazi Jew.) Until then, are you related to……?
The Numbers:13 Project
It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites. Numbers 25:13
When I think about all the people I knew when I was a kid, it is pretty amazing to me how many of them had parents – fathers, most usually – who were businessmen. In the small neighbor where I grew up, there was a doctor, a cop and an ad exec, but mostly the dads owned businesses. Our middle-class community depended on the market for glass containers, lighting, kosher meat, uniforms, gemstones and, in our family, office supplies and furniture.
Almost all of my friends went to college and almost none of them entered the family business. Some (like my sister) tried for a while, but most (like my brother and me) never had much interest in the “shop.”
I never did a scientific survey (nor even an unscientific one), but my two grandfathers made their way through this world working with their hands, and their children showed no particular interest or aptitude for that aspect of securing a livelihood. I am certain that you live in circumstances that benefit from my grandfathers’ trades, but I am equally certain almost none of you have contemporaries who followed in their footsteps.
The notion that children would follow their parents into the family business used to be pretty usual. You only need to look to the last names conferred on families with working-class origins when surnames began to emerge to know how prevalent it was to be defined by the family business. Smith, Porter, Wagner, Carpenter – these are very transparent English names. Schechter (butcher), Schumacher (cobbler), Weiner (vintner), Dayan (judge) are names common in the Jewish community with origins in European languages.
(Of course, there are other origins of surnames. Slaves often had their enslavers’ names imposed on them. Many cultures, including Jewish culture, used the name of a family elder as the last name. Geography often identified a family. And so many others.)
The process of choosing a profession has changed multiple times over the thousand years or more of identifying family names. But it is a pretty radical notion to consider that my livelihood could be defined by family heritage. My ancestors landed on these shores with the surname “Melamedmen.” It is a Hebrew-Yiddish mash-up that means, literally, “teacher-man.” In the hierarchy of Jewish scholarship, the “teacher-man” was a generalist, usually providing the foundation of basic Jewish literacy to children. While we have plenty of Jewish educators in our extended family, none of us wound up in the (honorable!) profession of teaching Bible to fourth-graders.
Speaking of the Bible, I imagine the “pact of priesthood for all time” mentioned above seemed like a pretty sweet deal back then. For certain, the responsibility of tending to the ritual life of the people by maintaining their right relationship with God was profound. But the priests were sustained by the rest of the people (as part of their home tribe of Levites) and enjoyed the privileges of office. They were limited in their choices for marriage and could not own real property, but the family business was secure and sustained.
But “all time” continues today. The designation of “priest” is preserved among the Jewish population by surnames that are remarkably accurate, diluted though the lineage may be. Any variation of Cohen, Kahn or Katz (an abbreviation of “righteous priest”) indicates a legacy of priesthood. Unless the name was adopted to replace an undesired surname, anyone whose family legacy includes this name is in some way presumed to be in the pact of priesthood for all time – the family business.
We live in an entrepreneurial world. Though work has undeniable dignity, the notion that you are assigned a form of labor by something or someone external to your own efforts is the stuff of tyranny or dystopian novels. My parents and grandparents were proud of the family businesses, but they never expressed the expectation that any of their offspring would follow in their footsteps.
I carry a title that reveals my career choice to the world. I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked if any of my children were going to follow me into the rabbinate, the “family business.” I never responded as many rabbis do with “I hope so” or as some rabbis do with “I hope not.” They followed the values they learned from my wife and me and have found a way to serve and sustain, each in their own idiom, as the generations did before them.
Our American culture sometimes tries to assign expectation to the children on the basis of their parents’ professions. In entertainment, politics, big businesses and sports especially, a marquee name is not only bankable, but definitive. But having a parent who was a senator, a point guard or a real estate magnate is no guarantee of anything other than fame. There are no more pacts of profession for all time.
The Numbers:13 Project
‘Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not of my own accord do anything good or bad contrary to the LORD’s command. What the LORD says, that I must say.’ Numbers 24:13
What constitutes integrity? I try not to get too theological in these columns, but sometimes it is unavoidable, as you will see.
I have always imagined integrity to be connected to integration, which is to say, the opposite of compartmentalization. I think it is impossible to live life without some measure of cordoning off certain experiences from others. I learned it as a rabbi a long time ago on the day I walked from one room in the synagogue where I conducted the naming for the first child and granddaughter of a multi-generational family to another room where I conducted a funeral after the sudden death of a young father of two toddlers. The emotion in each room could not have been different, but I could not afford to be swept away by either joy or grief.
The contrasts in our lives are not always that severe, of course. Yet, some measure of separation between work and home, responsibility and indulgence, birth and death, reaping and sowing, embracing and refraining from embracing -- you know the list -- is the experience of everyone who has been around the block even just once.
Still, the person who segments every experience and lives always and only in the moment seems (at least to me) to live without integrity. Integration involves connecting the various aspects of any system (in our case, a life) into some kind of comprehensive and comprehensible whole.
As a person of faith, I have one more criterion I think cannot be overlooked. Lots of folks find a way to knit together the parts of their internal landscape as they process their sojourn through life. Using the compass of conscience, however defined, or of self-interest (in its extreme expression known as narcissism), they mistake self-satisfaction for integrity. People whose sense of integrity is limited to what happens inside themselves are guilty of compartmentalization writ large.
The person of integrity is connected with something larger and external. For me, that’s God. I am not smug about that faith (nor even the version of it to which I adhere), but I believe deeply that anyone who answers to no standard but an internal standard is, in the end, a scoundrel. The reason: every decision, most especially those we like to call “moral,” is based on serving the self. It is not necessarily the case that the self-serving moral decision is bad or wrong -- not everyone is completely selfish -- but it is not transferable to other people who do not share the same internal landscape. Which, of course, is everyone else.
We are living in times in which integrity is pretty easily compromised. The parade of public figures who seem to have traded their principles for access to power or money (mostly to find themselves exposed and/or under a bus) is constant. You do not need to subscribe to the external values to which an individual has pledged allegiance to feel the pain and disappointment when integrity has disintegrated. Compulsively clinging to that external standard comes with its own set of problems, but letting it go entirely almost always leads to tragedy, whether it is misconduct, opprobrium or plain old loneliness.
The oft-maligned Bilaam (aka Baalam) seems to appreciate this truth when he is offered a fortune to use his oracular talents to condemn the Israelites. He is, at least at this moment, a man of integrity, that is, answering both to his internal and external values. It is a high point in his life (which precedes the low point -- being outsmarted by a talking donkey). He is not an Israelite/Jew, which teaches the lesson that integrity is not tribe-dependent (and allows the Bible to make his fall less personal to Jewish readers).
Maybe some other time I will muse about how to balance the internal compass and the external standards. For the moment, I will stop with the suggestion that adage “no one is an island” should inspire us not only to intertwined relationships, but also to a life of integrity,