Samson, between Tzorah and Eshtaol: The Transitional Space
Some of you know that in addition to my psychology clinic I moonlight as a tour guide, and write articles and music relating to the Bible. A few months ago, in preparation for a She’arim trip in the Beit Shemesh area, my father sent me a relevant article. The author mentioned that our famous Judge Samson hailed from that area. We see Rosh Hashana as the birthday of the world, and a time of judgment, and after describing Samson’s miraculous physical birth, the article quoted the verse from the book of Judges which tells of his spiritual birth and beginning of his activity as perhaps our most famous Judge: “Vatachel ruach Hashem lefa’amo bemachaneh Dan, bein Tsor’ah uvein Eshta’ol” ותחל רוח ה’ לפעמו במחנה דן בין צרעה ובין אשתאול . [And the spirit of God began to move him in the camp of Dan, between Tzorah and Eshta’ol.]
You know how sometimes something we’ve heard or seen many times – we suddenly see in a different light? Due to circumstances and context, or because we have changed, we take a different perspective? Well I had that feeling of surprise when I read “between Tzorah and Eshta’ol”. I’d read these lines and told the dramatic story of Samson many times, but suddenly the spotlight on this phrase struck me.
Samson’s tribe of Dan, as would typify Jewish experience for millennia to come, was a group of Jews in-between. They were apparently semi-nomadic, encamped between two towns. Modern archaeological excavations support the biblical narrative: the Danites did not conquer, expel or wipe out the Canaanites of Tzorah and Eshta’ol. In fact, we read in Judges that the tribe of Dan was eventually forced to migrate all the way to the northern Galilee, where it established its city of Dan on today’s northern border of Israel and Lebanon. But what was most interesting to me was the parallel between where the spirit of God began to move Samson, and other manifestations of that spirit in our people’s long and proud history. It occurred to me that the spirit of God began to move Abraham when he was on the move and between places, his family already having left Ur Casdim on the way to Haran, to continue on to Canaan. In parallel with the physical journey, Abraham moved from the old polytheistic culture of idolatry to his new-found relationship with the One God.
Isaac was also known for moving around and wandering the fields. But our father Jacob illustrates my point better: Jacob is described as having his revelations and dialogue with God precisely when he sets out and leaves family and land. You recall his famous dream of the staircase to heaven with angels ascending and descending – that was at Bethel, on his way out. And it is on the road back twenty years later at the river Yabok, that he encounters angels, including the one who strives with him and names him Israel. In both cases he is on the way, in between old and new territory, between the past and a new stage of life. And the most dramatic example is our Exodus from Egypt. We emerged from slavery, and forged ourselves into a goal-directed people with a unique and progressive system of moral values – all in the transitional stage, in-between Egypt and Canaan. Once again, that border area between old and new, both in physical space – in the desert, in nature, not in the heart of civilization, and in a space in time – a significant break in the normal, ongoing flow of events.
How is this relevant today? Because we are in, or ought to be in, just such a space today. And if we weren’t before this sermon began, I highly recommend that we enter it within the next ten minutes, by which time this sermon shall have ended (Praise the Lord, I hear you mumbling). But I am serious, and not only because we are in the period known in tradition as Bein keseh la’asor בין כסה לעשור, between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur: we should actively strive for such a transitional space. Look at the basic reason for Sabbath, stopping every seventh day, to rest, but not simply to rest, but to look, contemplate, think and readjust. The Torah specifically states LA’ASOT ET HASHABAT – la’asot, to do, to take action. It is not enough to be suspended in limbo thoughtless, motionless. We need to utilize the time to readjust.
If we take a look at our yearly calendar we see that every six months, in-between the two halves of the Jewish year, we clean out accumulated external and internal hametz and start fresh. In the spring – on Pesach; in the autumn on the High Holidays. And our tradition tells us to stop every seventh year for a shmita, to let go of old residues and start anew as a society. Our High Holy Days, more than any other officially ordained break, have been organized to facilitate our looking inward, to reach the darkest, most hidden corners of our soul and sweep out remnants of emotional and behavioral junk, such as negative feelings like resentments, envy, and anger toward others, and our own bad habits, or undeserved guilt or self-criticism.
We need to use this important time wisely. Shall we wait for the spirit of God to move us, for a revelation to arrive from without, in a vision or a dream, to make us do right now and today what needs to be done? Our tradition emphatically says No!
We have the story of a village overtaken by flood. The weatherman predicted the flooding due to the heavy rains upriver. The waters rising, the authorities issue evacuation orders, first by radio and then over loudspeakers from vehicles on the streets – but Shloimi and some others won’t abandon their homes. As the waters reach the threshold of houses, police and firemen go door to door to evacuate die-hards. But Shloimi refuses and goes up to his second story. The waters reach those windows, and boats from neighboring communities shout to him to jump in, but he refuses and moves to his rooftop. Coast guard helicopters appear, but Shloimi is a pious man, so he puts his trust in God and refuses to take hold of the ladder. Wrapped in his big Tallit he continues reciting his Tehilim in total devotion. Soon he is swept away. Arriving at heaven’s door, he protests, “Gottenyu, I kept all your commandments, how could you let me die in a flood?” The heavenly answer came with a tinge of annoyance: “Shloimi, I sent you warnings, police, boats, and helicopters! Why didn’t you listen and do your part?” From this story we see that God needs our help, so he can help us.
So are we doing our part? There is a deep understanding in our tradition of how truly difficult it is for us humans to effect real change in ourselves. When we left Egyptian slavery we pined for the plentiful vegetables we apparently enjoyed along the Nile when we weren’t making and schlepping bricks and building cities for Pharaoh. Our Sages say that God was able to take us out of Egypt, but that even He was unable to take Egypt out of us! The slave mentality, materialistic values, predilection toward strife, resistance to the new and progressive leadership and laws of Moses, and to the possibilities and demands inherent in the Promised Land … We needed 40 years and a new generation, in order to fully move into the new phase of our development. God also seemed to respond to Samson BEIN TZOR’A UVEIN ESHTA’OL. It’s no easy thing to change. To meet the spirit of God and to make significant change we need to decide right here and now to consciously use this opportunity and actually make a shift into the transitional phase, toward a new, higher level of being and activity.
None of us have fully realized our potential. Harry Stack Sullivan said that we all become caricatures of what we could have been! So let’s look at the aspects of ourselves that we are not so proud of, then look again at where we would prefer to be, where we could be if we let ourselves go there, and by God – let’s move! Let’s do the thing that we’ve been afraid to do, start the project that can help others (or join a project that needs us), write that letter (or e-mail or sms or whastapp) that will bring a smile to the face of a loved one or stranger, write one-a-day!; nourish the love in us and express it to those around us.
Let ourselves be like Samson, Shimshon, literally that “little sun” who began to shine from that little place of in-between – get in touch with our strength of character, and shine bright. Overcome our fears. Allow ourselves the freedom to really move, thinking different, feeling different, and acting different. Our first steps on the journey we can start today will take us into that in-between space. Relish the desert. Get in touch with our inner voice and go! As God had Moses put it: “Let my People go!” He could have said, “Let my People be free” or “Let my People alone”… But he said “Let my People GO!”
And so may you indeed go, and go with God. And may the new year be a time of positive growth for all of us amidst our friends and our loved ones – so together we can forge a better future for our children and grandchildren in this lovely in-between land of ours, for ages to come.