Parashat Mas’ei: An Oral History in Sight of Jericho

There is a Jewish custom of studying Torah in honor of a deceased loved one around the time of his or her yahrzeit. My family commemorated the third yahrzeit for my grandfather, Larry Eisen, zichrono livracha, this past Thursday, the 26th of Tammuz. The Torah study I’ve done in preparation for this d’var Torah has been dedicated in his memory. I hope I honor him by sharing these words with you today.

Before he passed away in the summer of 2008, I had the privilege of recording my grandfather’s oral history. He told me, chronologically, about his life, starting from childhood in Brooklyn, and recalled an early memory of running away from school every now and then in kindergarten. As he unfolded his life and memories to me, the details ebbed and flowed – some pieces were just outlines and dates, and sometimes he would vividly recall a story that he lovingly shared. My grandfather told me that he remembered his first middle-school crush, but wouldn’t tell me her name because it was still “too personal”. He told me that he served in the American army’s signal corps in World War 2, actually taking about a third of the oral history to describe to me in detail his experiences as a soldier. He reminisced about the time in 1945 when he was on a boat on the Atlantic with his platoon, traveling from Western Europe to the Phillipines via the Panama Canal, when suddenly an announcement came over the loudspeaker that the atom bomb had been dropped, the war had ended, and they watched the wake of the ship as it turned ninety degrees to head home to New York. My grandfather told me about his experience studying physics at NYU, his work in the sixties with early calculators for measuring explosions. He told me that while his first love of study was physics, he taught other subjects with some level of competency, sometimes keeping just a chapter ahead of his students. He told me, “oh yes, there was the time when I went to jail,” by which he meant the experience in which he taught astronomy in a medium-security prison, just because he’d been asked to; but, he remembered with a smile, “They wouldn’t let us go outside to see the stars. How can you teach astronomy and not let the students go outside?”

We find the Israelite nation at the beginning of this week’s parasha in Plains of Moav. If we think of the Book of Deuteronomy as entirely Moses’s final words to the Israelite Nation before they enter the Land of Israel, we recognize Parashat Mas’ei as the very last narrative parasha in the Torah. The contents of Parashat Mas’ei include the people’s Journeys; a mandate from God to possess the Land of Canaan and an outline of its borders; laws of ערי מקלט – cities of refuge for those who commit accidental manslaughter; and the resolution of the story of the daughters of Tslofehad, whereby it was decided that they could only marry those from within their tribe, so that the land they had inherited on behalf of their father would not transfer into the hands of another tribe. The parasha concludes, “אלה המצות והמשפטים אשר צוה ה’ ביד משה אל בני ישראל בערבות מואב על ירדן ירחו” — “These are the commandments and Laws that the Lord commanded of the Children of Israel, in the plains of Moab, on the banks of the Jordan, near Jericho.” Nervous and uncertain, the Israelites face their future. As Kafka wrote in his work, The Castle, it would have been “‘A fine setting for a fit of despair,’ it occurred to [K.], ‘if I were only standing here by accident instead of design’” (Franz Kafka, The Castle, p. 19). Then again, perhaps not nervous and uncertain. In his translation and commentary on the Torah, Robert Alter points out that the fact that the book of B’midbar is concluded with the word “יריחו” is appropriate because “Jericho will be the first military objective when the Israelites cross the Jordan, and so the concluding word here points forward to the beginning of Joshua” (Alter on Numbers 36:13).

Parashat Mas’ei itself, particularly in the first third of the parasha, is like an oral history of the life of the Israelite nation, having been “birthed” forty years earlier with the Exodus from Egypt. Like my grandfather’s oral history, this recapitulation of the long forty-year journey from Egypt to the Israelites’ present camp just across the Jordan River from Jericho ebbs and flows.

When a person tells an oral history, we can generally assume that his motives for providing certain information in more detail than other information is that he finds those moments more defining, more important, or more relevant to his audience. Here, though, in Numbers 33, details about stories we consider most important to our modern Judaism are omitted: of the forty-two ventures listed, there is no mention of receiving the Torah, no mention of battling against Amalek, no mention even of the miracle crossing the Red Sea, though all of the locations for those events are simply listed; and we only hear more than just geographical details about four of the forty-two ventures. Looking at the details that have been included, we must ask ourselves, “Why are these the most defining moments that God and Moses want the Israelite nation to take with them / as they prepare to cross the Jordan River / and start a new chapter of Israelite history?”

First new detail:

· At the beginning of the parasha, when the Israelites are leaving Ramses, “… on the fifteenth day of the first month, the day after the Passover. They marched out defiantly in full view of all the Egyptians, who were burying all their firstborn, whom the LORD had struck down among them; for the LORD had brought judgment on their gods.”

This account of the Exodus echoes but still has a very different feeling than the one that we heard back in Sh’mot, chapter 10. As triumphal as this account still feels, being told about the Egyptians burying their dead is a new addition to the Exodus story for us — last we checked in Parashat Bo, we read about the Ten Plagues, how God explains that He Himself “brought Judgment on [Egyptian] gods,” but we don’t get any sense of the stark feeling this image brings us — mourning, mass deaths, a preoccupation with their own grief which is what allows the Israelites, according to Rashi, a safe departure from the Land. Well, at least a safe head-start.

Two more non-geographical details:

· STOP #5 – At Elim, “… where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date trees.”

· STOP #10 – At Rephidim, “… where there was no water for the nation to drink.”

My nine-year-old chevruta partner had a very insightful interpretation of why these particular details are necessary. One particular comment he made rang very true in response to the question, “Why would God and Moses point out that in Elim there was lots of water and lots of food, while in Rephidim there was no water?” “Well,” my chevruta pondered aloud, “maybe it’s because having no food and water was what made Jacob’s sons go down to Egypt in the first place. Maybe this was to show them that sometimes they have a good supply and sometimes they don’t, but that they will always survive and be successful.”

The last detail we are provided:

· STOP #33 – At Hor HaHar, “… which is on the edge of the land of Edom. And Aaron the Priest went up on Hor HaHar, on the word of God, and died there in the fortieth year since the Children of Israel left Egypt, in the fifth month on the first of the month.” (Aside, this means that the Yahrzeit of Aharon Kohen HaGadol is Rosh Hodesh Av, which, incidentally, is on Monday). “Aaron was 123 years old when he died on Hor HaHar.”

Why is the death of Aaron notable here? It seems to me that this mostly has to do with time-frame more than anything else. Thinking as the nation currently standing in front of Moshe, we remember this event — it was important to us, and it happened recently.

Now, Parashat Mas’ei tells of forty-two stations at which the Israelite camp was situated throughout their forty-year journey in the desert. (And what would a summer d’var Torah at Temple Emanu-El be like without some Math? So here we go.) Forty-two is a very important number. Firstly, its prime factors are two, three, and seven — all very important numbers to our tradition. Additionally, anyone who read Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy knows that 42 is the “answer to the ultimate meaning of life, the universe, and everything.” Rashi points out in the name of Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan that, lest you think the Israelite nation was always moving, the first fourteen of these journeys all occurred in the first year of travel. These, Rashi says, are chronicled here to let us know that even though the Holy One sentenced the Israelites to wander the desert for forty years, you should not say that they were moving and wandering from journey to journey all forty years and never had any rest; […] rather, [of the forty-two] take fourteen away because these were all in the first year, before the decree (i.e. their travels from Rameses until they arrived at Rithmah.) […] Take away another eight journeys that were between the death of Aaron at Hor Ha-Har and the arrival at the Plains of Moav, and you’ll find that in all thirty-eight years of the decree since the negative report brought back by the מרגלים, the spies, the Israelites only traveled a total of twenty times.

But why retell this journey at all? What is so important that each of the forty-two stops be recounted so meticulously? A friend gave me a unique insight, taking our mind’s eye all the way back to B’reisheet. At the end of the first Creation story, God takes a step back and looks at everything He’s done, establishing Shabbat as not only a day “to rest and relax,” but also a day “to recount what we did during the week,” and say, “Wow, we did this?” Perhaps, continues my friend’s midrash, this is what this parasha is all about. Hindsight, reflection, is incredibly important. Perhaps the message God and Moses are trying to send is one of “look how far we’ve come”. Not everything is going to be easy, but look what experiences we’ve already had as a people — a dramatic move from slavery to freedom, experiences with times of plenty and times of drought and famine, death and transitions of leadership. As the Israelites look across the Jordan River, at the site of their next great step in nationhood, they are reminded that whatever they weather, with the help of God and with faith in their leaders they will succeed in whatever ventures they try. May we be blessed with the same faith and the same success.

Shabbat Shalom.

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When Called to Guard

(Letter to Temple Emanu-El Providence community, June 2010)

By now you have probably received an email from Temple Emanu-El calling for “Shomrim”. You might already know that it involves signing up to spend an hour or two sitting with the body of a member of our community who recently passed away in the days before he or she is buried. It has come to my attention, though, that many of our members don’t really know what this mitzvah entails.

In the coming paragraphs I hope to give you a bit more insight into what “Sitting Shmirah” means, and I hope to encourage you to sign up when we are looking for shomrim.

Judaism considers the body to be a gift from God to man, to house the soul that lives inside it. Each morning we recite a blessing thanking God for allowing all of our bodily functions to work properly followed by a blessing praising God for “restoring the soul to the lifeless, exhausted body,” i.e. when we’ve woken up in the morning (these blessings can be found on p. 4 of the Weekday Sim Shalom Siddur).

There is a sense in the Jewish afterlife tradition that as relatives say Kaddish for loved ones over the eleven months after they have passed on, the soul gradually rises toward the Throne of God. Since the soul is closest to the body just after he or she has died, and, tradition tells us, that the soul is most aware and most frustrated until the body has been interned in the ground, we keep the body, and the recently released soul, company until it reaches its final resting place.

When you sign up for Shmirah, you will be directed to the location where the body is being kept. Generally in our community Shmirah is served in the basement of the Sugarman-Sinai Funeral Home, but there have been instances where Shmirah has been served elsewhere. At Sugarman-Sinai Funeral Home, you will enter through the door in the back (facing the parking lot) and go down the stairs to where shmirah is observed unless there is a notice on that door indicating that Shmirah will occur somewhere else in the building. In some cases the body is in the same room but in a casket, in other instances, the casket is kept in the refrigerator to delay decomposition, but you would sit outside. In most circumstances, the body is not in a place where you can see it.

Once you arrive, there are a number of things you can do while you are “guarding.” It is customary either to read or discuss Jewish-themed texts or to recite Tehillim, from the Book of Psalms. Some suggest that you should only read those psalms which are appropriate to somber mood and the end of life. When I sat Shmirah for the first time, I learned from Cantor Brian Mayer that funerals are a “celebration of life, and hurt like hell.” He explained that because we direct our attention to the celebration of the person’s life we can say all of the Psalms because Tehillim, by nature, represent the whole spectrum of human emotion: fear, contentment, happiness, sadness, anger, resilience.

Here is my offer to anyone who is willing: If you are willing to serve as a Shomer this time around or in the future, I’m happy to sit with you or to find you a buddy who will sit with you. I understand if it’s not an experience you want to have alone the first time.

Keep in mind the following Gemara (based on Shabbat 127a and found on page 5 in the Weekday Sim Shalom Siddur):

Here are the things that yield immediate fruit in this world and for which a fund is established for him in the World to Come: honoring mother and father; doing acts of lovingkindness; attending the House of Study punctually in the morning and evening; welcoming guests; visiting the sick; welcoming a bride; attending to the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another, and between husband and wife. And the study of Torah is the most basic of them all.

In our tradition, attending to the dead in our community is considered one of the highest mitzvot one can do since there is no expected return from the person toward which the mitzvah is directed. It is one of the highest but also one of the most important, since, as we know, it is not easy.