06 July 2010

Divine Magnetic Lands

When Joshua takes upon himself--with incredible bravery--the unenviable task of having to lead the children of Israel into the land of Canaan, a mantle of leadership he inherited from Moses, he makes certain choices that leave clues for our own generation about choices we might make in leading our own generation of Jews to a path of promise and blessing.

First there are the rocks.  There is a circle of twelve of them, set up on the earth just after they passed over the Jordan River, whose symbolism, it's quite clear in the text, needs to be reinterpreted for a generation that is unsure of their meaning.  The generation crossing over seem to have a vague notion about the importance of the rocks; maybe the number twelve resonates for them as well; but nonetheless, there is a power of revitalization which is inherent in the spontaneous ritual of setting up the twelve stones on the earth, newly arrived at, just beyond the parted waters of the Jordan River (clearly reminiscent of the redemptive walled water of the Red Sea) that releases their ability to re-tell their story anew. 

What struck me was not so much that the leaders of that generation knew enough to tell an old story but that they did so with the full awareness that future generations *might not know* and so they saw it as their obligation to leave the story as a legacy.  The stones came *from the Jordan* and were carried over, to a new land; but Joshua set up twelve more stones *in the midst of the Jordan* signifying that the place of passage as well as the testimony to the passage are both hallowed ground.

We Jews remember at precisely the same moment that we sanctify, a particular narrative characteristic that is one of the singularly unique manifestations of our peoplehood.  Or, as the kids like to say today:  We're so Meta.
And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, did Joshua set up in Gilgal.  And he spoke unto the children of Israel, saying, 'When your children shall ask their fathers in time to come, saying:  What mean these stones?  then ye shall let your children know, saying, Israel came over this Jordan on dry land.  For the Eternal your God dried up the waters of Jordan from before you, until ye were passed over, as the Eternal your God did to the Red Sea, which God dried up from before us until we were passed over that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of the Eternal, that it is mighty; that ye may fear/love/be in awe of the Eternal your God for ever.  (Joshua 4.21-24)
The narrative of rescue is bound to the narrative of a prior rescue, which is bound to a narrative of obligation.  Meaning:  Jordan is the Red Sea and the stones are the tablets of the commandments.  Or, finally, nothing is without purpose.  Covenantal purpose.

I look at our world in the light of this story; I consider the synagogue I lead in the light of this story and I ask myself the simple question:  Why do we do what we do?  What narrative tool or structure do we employ to justify our existence?  Is it the ethnic continuity of our people?  Nah.  Is it the values and ideals of Reform Judaism?  Yes, but not exclusively.  Is it the unique perpetuation of Beth Elohim-ism for all future generations?  Close, but no cigar! 

It's to believe we have a sacred story to tell--rooted in the oneness of our God and the uniqueness of our people to bring blessing and goodness to the world based on our understanding of our relationship with the God of Israel.  The words we use and the deeds we employ to make those words a reality.

Hey--my uniqueness doesn't obviate yours.  We each have our own to claim.  Here's another son of Brooklyn (Whitman) in a different time:
Come, I will make the continent indissoluble.
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.
Our promise as Jews.  Our promise as Americans.  To always create unity and purpose, united in love and friendship.  Setting up stones to remind us of the past; setting up stones so the past can teach us; and allowing our teaching to bring more justice, peace, love and awe to our world.


Marco Siegel-Acevedo said...

Andy--great post on a chapter of the Story with special resonance for me. Mnemonics. Or as Neneh Cherry sang, "I know where I'm going and where I'm coming from." Over and over it's struck me that some mitvot and traditions laid out in the Torah, the details of the narrative which to the modern mind sometimes seem so strange, seem to make make most sense as tools of memory for this new people with an unprecedented sense of purpose and forward momentum. Ancient pagan (Egyptian, et al) time was so relentlessly cyclic, its observers slaves lashed to the cosmic wheel. By contrast Moses and then Joshua and the post-enslavement generation of Israelites marked a trail, create a conscious linear history with a trajectory and a goal (the original progressives?) I think that's why I chose Yehoshua as my Hebrew name. Starting a family in this new faith, opening up to the idea of community and shedding my old narcissistic self-involvement all feels, finally, like trajectory. Progress, in the best possible sense.

Marco Siegel-Acevedo said...

PS-- I don't mean to imply that the mitzvot are merely mnemonic. That would be to leave out the vital dimension of God's Tough Love. 40 years in the desert was just enough to bring the history lesson home.

Marietta said...

Beautiful. The kerns that come from our ancient, common ground and show us the way. Thanks, Andy.