Friday, July 29, 2011

Mas'ei (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this week’s Torah portion, see the archive to this blog for June 20 2006, July 2007, July 5 2008, July 2009 and 2010.

“What A Trip!”

The opening section of this week’s parashah, from which it takes its title, speaks about journeys, or “trips”—recounting the places where the children of Israel encamped during their journey from Egypt to the land of Israel, forty-two stations or masa’ot in all. Although the literal sense of the Torah here is concerned with the collective experience of the entire people, many later commentators—Hasidic and otherwise— read these masa’ot as alluding to the individual and his life journey: from its very beginning, at birth, in breaking out of the “narrowness” (metzarim=Mitzrayim) of the womb and birth canal, through a variety of stages, both good and bad, until one reaches “the Land of Eternal Life”—i.e., death and that which lies beyond.

Interestingly, Rashi on the opening verse of our portion (Num 33:1), cites a Midrash that relates specifically to the metaphor of personal experience: “This may be compared to a king whose son was ill, and he took him to a distant place to be healed. On their return journey, the father began to enumerate all the places they had passed: here we slept, here it was cold, there you had a headache” (Tanhuma, Mas’ei §3; Numbers Rabbah 23.3).

But whether one is speaking of an individual or a community, the metaphor of life as a series of stations on a journey is a cogent one. Life is seen here in dynamic, not static terms: as a constant process of growth and change. There is a temptation among some to see Judaism in a static way: as a fixed pattern of life, with a daily, weekly, and annual cycle of rituals repeated endlessly. Once one has become a shomer mitzvot—thus gores this argument—one feels that one has reached the goal. (Such thinking is at times encouraged by the sharp differentiation felt in the observant community between those who are “within” and those on the “outside”—“our people” and “Others.”) But in fact the external pattern of observance, the halakhah, couched in objective terms, is merely the beginning, the outline, the external framework for real spiritual, moral and personal growth.

It seems to me that one of the reasons for the popularity of Hasidism, of Hasidic thought and the study of Hasidic books in our generation, is that it articulates this insight. Hasidism speaks of religious life as a constant process of ratzo va-shov—literally, “running and returning,” but really: ebb and flow, ups and downs, moments of profound spiritual insight and even ecstasy, when everything coalesces and one feels close to the Divine source; and other times of dullness, when one is stuck in the mundane, ordinary world, doing no more than going through the motions of Torah and mitzvot.

This, then, is the chapter of masa’ot, of the stations of life. At times one feels surrounded by supportive friends and community: one is in Keheilata, or even Makhelot, where one is part of a choir of harmonious voices singing a beautiful song. Or one may belong to a court focused on the figure of a charismatic leader, like a Hasidic Rebbe: Hatzerot. At other times one is dead within, and all those passions and desires which gave life its color and excitement—whether sexual love, friendship, creative work, or even the simple appetite for food—are meaningless: one has come to Kivrot ha-Ta’avah, the burial place of appetite; or worse than that, one may find oneself in a place of sheer existential terror, Haradah. Then again, at other times life may be filled with sweetness—Mitkah; but at others one is in the dregs, in the dung at the very bottom of the pit—Tahat. And finally, perhaps close to the end of ones journey, all one knows is that one has undertaken an arduous climb to the top of the hill, and one is on the verge of the transition into the unknown: Harei ha-Avarim.

Does it all make sense? At times life seems a series of senseless, random events: success and failure, happiness and sadness, joy and tragedy, seem to come out of nowhere and have no coherent pattern or sense. The existentialist would say that the meaning of life is that which one chooses to give it. The religious person may add that, even if one cannot perceive the rhyme or reason for what has happened, it somehow makes sense in the eyes of God. And the Jew will add: “These are the journeys of the children of Israel”—one’s own life is part of the age-old history of the Jewish people, in its long, labyrinth path from Egypt, through Sinai, to ultimate Redemption. If nothing else, those of us who have borne and raised Jewish children, or taught others even one word of Torah, are links in the chain.

What are the “trips” or “stages” in the nation’s way towards becoming a nation? Here, too, the life of a nation is an endless series of steps and changes. In recent weeks I have, in my professional life, translated some material written during the decades before the creation of the State of Israel. I was impressed by the power of this vision, and the certainty that all would be different after Statehood—and of course, it was a very great event indeed. But living here, and looking backwards from a distance of more than sixty years, one sees that statehood was only the beginning, and that there were ups and downs, new kinds of problems, both within and without, and that even here “we have not yet come to the peace and the inheritance.” National life, too, is an endless series of stations, of “campgrounds”—but never a final resolution.

Some other, larger questions: What is the value of reminiscing about what happened in the past? The fact that the Torah recounts all these stations, and that the Midrash reaffirms it, suggests that it is of some value. Or is the scene described by Rashi simply an expression of the human impulse to remember, to reminisce? When I was a child my mother, z”l, used to tell me how when her own parents and their age-cohorts would get together and talk, sooner or later someone would ask Gedengst?—“Do you remember [such–and–such and so-and-so]?—and they would begin reminiscing about people they knew in Der Heim, in the “Old Country.”

But the value of memory goes beyond that. Memory is a crucial component of identity—be it personal identity, familial identity, or national identity. A group is bound together by common memories, by the stories that it tells itself about its common past. Particularly in the modern age, when religious faith and religious praxis have weakened as a unifying thread of Jewish identity, and when any simple conception of Jewish peoplehood and Zionism based upon common language and soil have turned out to be more problematical and even divisive than thought, common historical memory may yet prove to be the common denominator of Jewish identity. (A young scholar, Yehuda Kurzer, was awarded the prestigious Bronfman Chair in Jewish Communal Innovation to write on the theme of rebuilding Jewish memory).


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