27 August 2010


17 Elul 5770

I want an MG convertible.
I want a simple Harley Davidson motorcycle.
I'd like a house with a big back yard and I want to be a better gardener.
I'd also like a house on a lake in Northern Wisconsin.
And an apartment in Jerusalem.

That's about the extent of my material aspirations.  The sum total of forty-seven years of dreaming about the things that I want.  Two are about mobility.  The other three are about domesticity.  The thought of each brings me enormous comfort and satisfaction; though, not being a wealthy man, there is disappointment, too.  So it is as I face the mirage of my own fantasies. Will I ever get them?  How will I feel if I won't?  And in Elul, I am forced to realize that these are really rather shallow questions, no?

I can't begin to imagine how Moses must have felt, born into fate as he was, tasked with the nearly impossible--first, to be a national liberator, and then to successfully execute the responsibilities required of him to lead his people across a desert, to create an entire national, social, religious infrastructure upon which a people would grow, develop and thrive (against every conceivable effort of elimination) for more than three thousand years--as he stood before the people at the age of one hundred and twenty and prepared to die without ever entering into the Land of Israel.  There is no record of Moses and Zipporah sitting around and talking about their domestic dreams; there is also no record of Moses and his buddies heading off to a local saloon to bullshit over a beer about what they really want. 

Moses' particular genius is found in the simplicity of his message.  He had a way of distilling his experiences of God into an essence that was, as they say on Madison Avenue, "long-lasting!" 

One night in Madison--let's call it twenty-five years ago--I took a long walk after an evening of studying some sacred texts in the library at Hillel.  I finished the walk along Langdon Street, a part of town known for its fraternities and sororities:  some of Madison's best real estate and worst behavior.  At the bottom of Langdon it was closing time and boozed up Badgers started pouring out of the unironically named "KK," the Kollege Klub, loudly professing some nonsense or another, having one last cigarette of the night, slurring along in preppy delight. 

I was the only one among them who saw the owl.  Perched, like a Monarch of the Night, on a fence post outside the bar, an owl who was not so much lost but sent as a message, stared into my eyes for the briefest of eternities, before heading heavenward.  I was speechless, appropriately so.   Couples paired off around me, stumbling home in happy oblivion.  More power to 'em, I guess.  During those years, that experience was one of those affirmations of critical choices that we make at that age--pledges to ourselves for what we decide our lives will stand for.  I passed a few MG's on that walk that night, cognizant of where my feet would land.

I would not see an owl again for twenty-two years, until three summers ago in Jerusalem, on a Friday evening, when my daughter called me over in her direction to point it out, high above on a branch in a cypress tree, set against the magnificent sky.  Its white, feathery mass like a thick explanation point on an acquired wisdom from long ago.  Isn't it something?  To live long enough to experience the occurrence of two events, separated by a quarter century, and have them speak to or complement one another?   In his one hundred and twenty years, that must have happened quite a bit to Moses.  Lucky fellow, right?  Blessed.  Preparing to die, Moses says to the people in Deuteronomy 26.1-16:
"And it shall be, when thou art come in unto the land which the Eternal thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and dost possess it, and dwell therein; that thou shalt take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which thou shalt bring in from thy land that the Eternal thy God giveth thee; and thou shalt put it in a basket and shalt go unto the place which the Eternal thy God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there. And thou shalt come unto the priest that shall be in those days, and say unto him: 'I profess this day unto the Eternal thy God, that I am come unto the land which the Eternal swore unto our fathers to give us.' And the priest shall take the basket out of thy hand, and set it down before the altar of the Eternal thy God. And thou shalt speak and say before the Eternal thy God: 'A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And we cried unto the Eternal the God of our fathers, and the Eternal heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. And the Eternal brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. And He hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 
And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which Thou, Eternal, hast given me.' And thou shalt set it down before the Eternal thy God, and worship before the Eternal thy God. And thou shalt rejoice in all the good which the Eternal thy God hath given unto thee, and unto thy house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is in the midst of thee.  When thou hast made an end of tithing all the tithe of thine increase in the third year, which is the year of tithing, and hast given it unto the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan, and to the widow, that they may eat within thy gates, and be satisfied.   Then thou shalt say before the Eternal thy God: 'I have put away the hallowed things out of my house, and also have given them unto the Levite, and unto the stranger, to the orphan, and to the widow, according to all Thy commandment which Thou hast commanded me; I have not transgressed any of Thy commandments, neither have I forgotten them.  I have not eaten thereof in my mourning, neither have I put away thereof, being unclean, nor given thereof for the dead; I have hearkened to the voice of the Eternal my God, I have done according to all that Thou hast commanded me.  Look forth from Thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Thy people Israel, and the land which Thou hast given us, as Thou didst swear unto our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.'
 The idea that in going into the land, Moses encodes for the people that they are to ritually reminded of their own wandering roots is the most powerful expression I can think of for remaining forever humble in the midst of material possession.  The ritual of remembrance upon possession is about the roots of not possessing, and of never forgetting the least fortunate among us:  the stranger, the orphan, the widow.

Voices of insanity and bigotry violent vie for control in our land and as we prepare, especially in this season, to examine our hearts and souls, we would do well to remind ourselves and others that in fact, as Moses taught long ago, none of us come from anywhere except where we just were, as wanderers and strangers, sometimes even orphaned and widowed, all alone.  The confidence of possession and material satisfaction is nothing but an illusion--a desert mirage. 

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