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.


A Meditation for Yom HaShoah

At Temple Emanu-El in Providence, when someone opens the door to our chapel and leaves it to close on its own, one hears a brief and barely audible “click” as the door hits its frame, and then another loud, definitive, often startling, “clack” as the door finally latches. The louder sound happens only after the door has been closed in silence about ten seconds, long enough that the person who came or left through it is long gone.

Today is Yom HaShoah. Holocaust Remembrance Day. The 27th of Nissan, less than a week after the end of Passover, a holiday on which we celebrate our freedom from slavery and oppression. Our celebration of freedom ended with a “click”, but we are jarred back to reality with the “clack” of our commemoration ceremonies and yellow candles. Maybe we were freed  three-thousand years ago. Our oppression barely ended so recently as 1945. It still lingers.

Although it didn’t seem like a day to teach up-beat music to my students in our Religious School as I do each Sunday morning, all students third grade through seventh today sang “Ani Ma’amin”. Each class had different memories about learning about the Holocaust; each class had different feelings about singing the song, hearing its words, and grasping its meaning.

אני מאמין, באמונה שלמה, בביאת המשיח
ואף על פי שיתמהמה, עם כל זה אחכה לו בכל יום – שיבוא

I believe, with wholehearted faith, in the coming of the Messiah.
And even if he is delayed, even with everything, I will wait for him, every day – that he will come.

Even in the depths of our despair, we believe. As Jews, we believe. As human beings, we believe in the goodness of people, despite all else, that a better time will come and that peace will prevail.

When we read texts, we have a tradition of not ending on a sad or angry note. Often times we add a verse at the end of a negatively or reproachfully themed haftarah in order to rest on a more hopeful idea. My classes today ended by singing “Oseh Shalom,” Judaism’s universal prayer for peace, and “HaTikvah,” the national anthem of the State of Israel, as we prepare for our celebration of the State of Israel with Yom Ha’Atzma’ut next week.

Although the tragedy feels long gone and far removed, it still lingers. We still feel the jolt back to reality as we put the death tolls into perspective for our students, as we show them what it meant to us, our parents and grandparents, and theirs, to remember those who perished.

Shabbat VaEtchanan

So many fascinating and oft-cited things happen in this parasha, Parashat VaEtchanan: Moshe recaps the Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:6-18), and describes the unforgettable scene in which the People received the Torah and when “Face to face God spoke with you” (Deut. 5:4). He gives the Children of Israel the the desperate and powerful outcry, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!” (Deut. 6:4), and further tells the People that they have an obligation to love God, “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5), rather than just passively observing that He is One.

But these issues, while absolutely fascinating, and a discussion for another time, are hogging the attention of this parasha in which there is so much more that we can glean.

It is the first Aliyah of this parasha — the first few p’sukim specifically — that attracts my attention most prominently:

(1) And I requested of God in that moment, saying: (2) Lord God, You began by showing Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand; who else in the Heavens or on the Earth could do as Your deeds and as Your courage? (3) Let me pass so I may see the good land that is across the Jordan, this good mountain, and Lebanon. (4) And God was angry with me because of you, and he did not listen to me; and God said to me, “Be satisfied, do not continue to talk to me about this issue. (5) Go up to the top of that mountain, and lift your eyes west, north, south, and east, and see it with your eyes, for you will not cross this Jordan River. (6) And command Joshua, and make him stronger and give him courage, for he will cross before this nation, and he will guide them in the land that you will see.

Now, we are to understand that the book of D’varim, or Deuteronomy, is Moshe’s commentary on the events recounted in the four preceding books. But look at what Moshe says: “God will not let me cross the Jordan River into the Land of Israel, and it is all your fault! God was angry with me because of you!” Moshe still does not assume his own responsibility of hitting the rock to get water instead of talking to it as God had commanded him.

But was Moshe’s indiscretion so bad that he deserved to die? We know from the midrash that no one who came out of Egypt was supposed to enter the land of Israel, but Moshe’s plight seems to be framed as a punishment. Moreover, is he correct in saying that his death will be on the hands of the Nation?

Let us take a brief look at two previous instances when God employed the death penalty: First, Nadav and Avihu (Lev. 10:1-3); second, Korach and his followers (Num. 16:1-18:32).

Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s four sons, brought a “strange fire” onto God’s altar on the day the Children of Israel dedicated the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Because of their action, they were immediately struck down, so suddenly that the Torah takes only three p’sukim to describe the entire incident. The words “strange fire,” in Hebrew “אש זרה,” only appear in the Torah in the context of Nadav and Avihu’s transgression, so we can not be entirely sure of its meaning. However, it was possible that Kohanim made mistakes in their Korbanot long after Nadav and Avihu: what did they do to deserve death? Hold that thought.

Korach, a Levite who was unhappy with the political structure of the Israelite nation, staged a revolt against Moshe, to try to overturn the leadership and to assume that position for himself. Sure, he tried to assassinate the Divinely chosen leader, but he and all of his followers were punished from Shamayim. Did they merit death? Of course they did. As did Nadav and Avihu, and Moshe.

How do I figure? What do all these events have in common?

Public distrust of God.

In Korach’s case, it’s easy to explain. Korach staged a rebellion against a Divinely-erected government, and convinced others to follow his example. In a fledgling society that was heavily dependent on its leaders for continuity and strength, and that was moreso dependent on God to lead them on the right path, to try to overthrow the political structure was to doubt God in front of all the People. This was not an act that was tolerated.

Nadav and Avihu are a bit more complicated, but in the same vein. Put simply, Nadav and Avihu’s transgression happened on the day when God had said that He would bring fire down from Heaven to consume the sacrifices. On this day, a day in which all eyes were towards the Kohanim and on the new Mishkan, Nadav and Avihu brought this “strange fire,” or fire that had not come from Heaven. “Strange fire” implies a doubt toward the capability of God to bring fire from Heaven, and as all the people of Israel were watching, it shows a public doubt of the capabilities of God.

By now you can surely see where I’m going. In this week’s parasha, Moshe blames the Children of Israel for his impending death, and perhaps he is correct; in any case, though, they don’t really deserve Moshe’s wrath. Moshe’s ultimate mistake — and it was an honest mistake — was not merely that he hit the rock instead of speaking to it, but that he did it le’einei kol ha’am, in view of the whole nation. Everyone knew that God had told Moshe to speak to the rock, and they all saw him hit it in a time of weakness. Sure, he was still human, and humans make mistakes, but Moshe did it le’einei kol ha’am.

In the end, the most important thing to learn from Moshe’s anger — misplaced or not, you decide — is to monitor the kind of person you are when everyone can see you. Whether you mean to or not, the people around you do not see your thought process. They can not read your mind, they can not feel your feelings, but they can see what you do. You are most often a personal example for others when you are not conscious that they are watching.

And though I began by denouncing the incessant drashing of the Ten Commandments and the Sh’ma in this parasha, my point is the essence of why they are all together in one week: in the first aliyah of VaEtchanan, you learn that you must be a personal example when in the public light. By the fifth aliyah, you must be reminded of what the mitzvot are that you are meant to keep, and by the sixth aliyah, you are ready to impart that knowledge to your children and to those around you, and to be a passive example, a beacon to those struggling around you, with t’fillin and mezuzah.