Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 2nd Av 5776, 6th August 2016
We have reached the borders of the Promised Land. We are preparing to enter and take possession. Moshe begins this final parsha (before his long monologues during the final days of his life) with a summary of the 42 stations at which the Israelites stopped during their 40 years of wandering.
He then ties up loose ends, like the boundaries of the country, who’s going to lead the tribes, what to do with the Levites who have no inheritance of their own, what to do about people who commit involuntary manslaughter (the cities of refuge), and finally, how to maintain a workable balance between individual rights and group or tribal rights. (This appears in the final chapter about Zelofchad’s five daughters who, we learned, can inherit land. But their tribe was concerned: if they marry out, the lands will go to another tribe. And here, in response, we read that the daughters can marry whomever they want, as long as their husbands belong to their tribe. And they do. Everyone is happy.
But let’s back to the opening of the parsha and the 42 stations on the road to Canaan. Egypt is just west of the Sinai Peninsula, isn’t it? And Canaan is just east of it. Forty years to make a crossing that we could do, on foot, in 5-10 days? 15? What were they doing, going around in circles?
Probably. We do not know because we don’t know the exact location of the 42 stations but there is no way the Israelites went in a straight line. If we look at the story from a linear point of view, we have to conclude that the journey, at least as originally conceived, was a failure. On the other hand, they did not, could not, take the high road to Canaan because, as we saw, they were singularly unfit to enter the land.
This view raises the general question of the difference between a linear orientation and a circular or cyclical orientation, and the benefits of each. As Rabbi Ari Kahn has pointed out, we believe that we live our lives linearly. We start at point A and work to points B, C, X, Y, Z. We start our education, rise up through the grades and institutions, earn a degree (or a few), get a job, then another, then another, till we find our proper niche, build a family, children, grandchildren, retire, and, as Frank Sinatra sang, “That’s life”.
That’s a fair representation if we look at the larger picture. The details, however, often show a more circular or cyclical orientation. Let’s take education. The Yad Vashem approach to teaching the Shoah in schools is spiral, which is a form of cyclical. You start with something basic, then come back several times to a similar idea but each time at a higher level of cognition, so that children and teenagers are familiar with events or terminology, and everything new they learn can link up with something that has been learned before.
The details of our lives are basically cyclical and you will agree with me that every year the cycle seems to go faster. But repetition does not mean the same thing. We end the cycle of Torah readings in just under three months’ time, and immediately begin again. Is it the same each time we read a parsha? I hope not! That would mean we’re not learning anything or not paying enough attention to it. It should be spiral learning.
The seasons come and go, and even though the heat seems to sear our bodies and souls longer and longer each year, the fact is that we do go through autumn, winter and spring before returning to summer each year. The weeks come and go, with Shabbat representing the conclusion and a high point. That doesn’t mean the other six days are unimportant, days to get through so that we can celebrate Shabbat again. Each day is important, each day should be another step in the cycle, where we repeat what we know and add new information, feelings, experiences, ideas and insights each time around.
We accept that most of our lives are cyclical, circular and repetitious to a certain extent. But the cyclical nature should help us to learn and improve. If you remember the movie “Groundhog Day”, a person relives 2nd February again and again and again, until he gets himself right. In the movies you may reach that point where you do it right; in life we often don’t get it right even the 70th time around.
And here’s a physical example. You’ve experienced or seen Chassidic centers; when on holidays they sing and chant while shuffling around in a circle. What happens in that circle? With each round, the chassidim become more immersed in the group, in the holiday, in the words of the song they are singing. They go into a trance that may help them transcend the here and now. If we can do that, even on a different level, we’re doing well.
Getting back to the parsha, then, the fact that the Israelites did not make a beeline from Egypt to Canaan may have been a temporary setback when compared to an ideal exodus, but in actual fact the time was needed to expose them to new experiences, again and again. As they moved from place to place 42 times and set up camp again and again, they learned more about what it means to live together as a liberated people. They learned about cooperation. They learned what God expected of them.
Of course, to the very end we have the feeling (which is substantiated by the next books in the Bible) that the Israelites with all their cyclical learning, had an even stronger desire to reject the learning, to disobey, to go their own way even though they knew (deep down) that, 1. It was wrong, and 2. They would be punished for it. That’s what today’s haftarah was all about.
Becoming aware of the cyclical nature of our lives takes time, and we have certainly learned it, and, I hope, from it. And that’s just about the best we can hope for: that as we retrace our steps yet another time, we know more, we know even more clearly how little we know, and we take pleasure in adding just one more stick or brick to the edifice that is our lives.