07/10/2009 - "In My Life": The Jewish Version

July 10, 2009

19 Tamuz 5769


 The Torah is filled with wonderful stories and soaring ethical mandates. We think, for example, of the Exodus from Egypt, or the Ten Commandments. But the Torah also contains some sections that we might call “boring.” Several chapters are filled with genealogies, describing who fathered who, how many children each person had, where they lived, and so on. We also encounter many obscure place names and historical sites. In fact, in this week’s Torah portion, we come across a list of such places. We are at the end of the Book of Numbers. The Israelites are looking across the Jordan River into the Promised Land. As they prepare to enter, Moses begins to speak. He precedes to list in order the 42 places where the Israelites encamped in the wilderness. These include Marah, Elim, Etham, Mount Shepher, and so on. In a traditional synagogue, where the Torah is chanted, the 49 verses that encompass this list are chanted quickly and without pause. This custom only reinforces our natural tendency to ignore it.
Yet, for the ancient rabbis, nothing in the Torah was superfluous, much less boring. Every word was divine, even the obscure parts. Every word had significant meaning. So what did they do with this list of places? According to Rashi, the greatest of the rabbinic Torah commentators, Moses offered this list for two reasons. First, he wished to dramatize God’s pervasive presence and protection of the Israelite people. They would never have survived the harshness of living through 40 years of wandering without God’s protection. By listing the names, Moses reminds the Israelites, in a concrete way, of their journey and of God’s constant presence.
Why do the people need this reminder? So that they remain faithful once they enter the Promised Land. Remember, Moses is saying, what God did for you. As you enter this new phase of life, don’t betray God’s teachings. This is similar to parents sending their children off to college. Remember, they say, the values we taught you. Remember the care we gave you. Don’t act foolishly. Don’t make up your own rules. Don’t forget the love and devotion we have for you.
This parental voice can continue throughout one’s life. Many of us have seen Woody Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors. It is the story of Judah, a prominent ophthalmologist who is having an extra-marital affair. When he breaks it off, his spurned lover threatens to tell his wife. Judah hires his brother, a criminal with whom he rarely associates, to kill her. Although Judah is meticulous in his planning, he also has a sense of guilt. In a pivotal scene, Judah returns to his childhood home. As he walks into the dining room, he sees his family sitting around the Passover Seder table. The young Judah is by his father, who is sitting at the head of the Table. It is a flashback. The family is arguing over whether or not there is a God and if there is a God, whether he punishes evildoers. The father insists that not only is there most definitely a God, but his eyes see all. The older Judah starts to argue and tremble, but his father does not relent. Judah’s face turns red, and suddenly the scene disappears.
The experiences of our past resonate in our present. If we listen to them, if we pay attention to their meaning, they may help us do the right thing. That is why Moses lists the sites of Israel’s journey. To remind them of where they’ve been, the guidance they received, and the choices they must now make.
Rashi’s second explanation adopts a more humanistic perspective. It is a recollection of the journeys of the people’s lives. Its purpose is to enhance their self-understanding, and to help them grow more cohesive as a people. Rashi uses a wonderful parable. Imagine a king, he says, whose son is ailing. They go forth in search of a cure. They find one in a distant place. As they return, they retrace their steps. At each point of their journey, they recount what happened. “Here we slept, here we froze; here we almost got lost…” and so on. This journey builds their connection to one another.
Each of us can probably relate to such an experience. I remember recently returning to my college campus with a friend and recollecting about everything we did at various places. Why do we do so? It imbues the moments of our lives with significance. It helps us connect with one another. It helps us understand ourselves.
At many weddings, bride walks down the aisle to the Beatles song “In My Life.” It’s a song about the past meeting the present. It’s a song about how the singer has been formed by all his past experiences in life. Consider the lyrics, which are also on the back of the service bulletin: “There are places I remember all my life, though some have changed. Some forever, not for better. Some have gone, and some remain. All these places had their moments. With lovers and friends, I still can recall. Some our dead and some are living. In my life, I’ve loved them all.”
 Of course, the point of the song is that all those experiences pale in comparison to the feeling of love he has now. Yet, part of the beauty and attraction of the song for many is, I think, it’s recognition that we are the result of our experiences in life. They shape us. They never leave. As Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It's not even past." Our lives are journeys shaped by the roads we have taken.
Now in the Beatles song, the goal, the end point of the journey, is love of a particular person. In Judaism, the goal of the journey is a life of growth, of wisdom, of love of knowledge, truth and humanity. Ultimately, the goal is to learn and live by God’s ways, which, as the prophet Micah put it, are “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy god.”
This journey can be difficult. Like the Israelites, we have to wander for many many years. And the longer we wander, the more we realize how far we still have to go. This message is a not pessimistic one. Rather, it is a humbling one. It is to realize that the more we know, the more we realize what we do not know. The more we do, the more we realize what needs to be done. The more we seek tikkun olam, to improve the world, the more we must also tikkun midah, improve ourselves.
This notion is captured in the recollection of Rabbi Israel Salanter, one of the great rabbis of the nineteenth century: “When I was young,” he said, “I wanted to change the world. I tried, but the world did not change. So I tried to change my town, but my town did not change. Then I turned to my family, but my family did not change. Then I realized: first I must change myself: and I am still trying.”
Copyright © 2009 Rabbi Evan Moffic. All rights reserved.