From the Desert to the Promised Land: Stability and Movement

mascettiBy Yaacov Mascetti*

This week my son, Yedidia, put on tefillin in shul for the first time, thus inaugurating the first step into the halachic realm of adulthood. A bar mitzva is a long process, for the boy and for his parents – this is my own very intimate and genuine expression of love to him, which, because of its contents, I wish to share on this platform.

Dear Family, dear friends:
זה היום עשה ה’, נגילה ונשמחה בו
It is today, Rosh Hodesh Menachem Av that we celebrate Yedidia’s first time in putting on his tefillin within the public sphere. This specific moment in the life of a young Jewish boy is intimately related to and accompanied by a process of which the bar mitzvah is certainly the high-point, but not the end of. This process leads the boy from the status of childhood, in which he is unaware of and beyond responsibility for his religious actions, to one in which the performance of commandments and the lack thereof define his relationship with G-d and with society. The phylacteries are tied upon the left arm, near the heart, and place on the head, signifying an imposition of the Divine word upon the actions and thoughts of the individual. What may appear straightforward is, I think, fraught with the potential danger of satisfaction.

The performance of religious actions is the result of an act of volition – one must want to do something, actualize what is written on books and make it reality. The transition from a thing learned to a thing done can often lead us to a feeling of satisfaction. How many of us will put of tefillin, go to the mikvah, buy a lulav and pray with it on Sukkot, build and live in a sukkah, keep Shabat etc., and think “I have done my duty, this is what I have to do and now I can ease my mind and relax for I have done G-d’s will.” This state of mind is one of false stability which leads the individual to refrain from looking beyond, from continuing his search – it places an emotional and intellectual obstacle which blocks him, or maybe protects him, from that movement to the next stage. We induce ourselves, that is, to stay put, to stick with the frameworks we know, to enjoy the sweetness of habit and custom instead of being perpetually engaged in the building, establishing and tearing apart of those very frameworks. The static cognition brought by this attitude towards the commandments ultimately brings us to get rid of the yoke of uncertainty, to touch with our bare hands the presence of truth, and to interrupt our human journey.

The book of Numbers, BeMidbar, ended last week. What I would like to do today is make a connection between the parashot of “Mas’ei”, “BeMidbar” and the parasha which Yedidia will read, Gd willing, in a couple of months, “Nitzavim-VaYelech” – the passage from one parasha to the other delineates the traits of a movement from the journey of the people of Israel in the desert, to its entrance into the Promised Land right after Moses speaks his last words in the form of a poem, a song.

Numbers is a particularly harsh text within the general framework of the Torah. It describes difficult stories of fall, sin, lack of faith, collective punishments, stories in which the earth is portrayed as it opens its mouth and devours those who have doubted Moses’ Divinely ordained role and authority. The desert is a context in which nothing is certain, a place where roots will not sink into the ground but dry up and die, a place where a fixed abode is not possible, and where there is little chance of constructing a civilization. The desert is the melting pot for the formation of the Jewish nation, the place where the Torah is handed over to the people, where G-d speaks to Moses, where Moses fails to speak to the rock, and where the people learn what it means to be completely dependent upon Divine will.

The last section in the book of Numbers is entitled “Mas’ei”, travels, and it names all the different stops in the exodus from Egypt to the Land of Israel – Rashi explains that the Torah indicates with precision the different stops in order to show that G-d’s providence allowed them to rest even though it forced them to travel for forty years. The point is, therefore, that G-d allows them to stop, to rest, to experience for a limited span of time what it means to be stable, fixed, to live in one place – and once they experience that feeling of reposed stability, they are once again ordered to take everything apart, undo the Tabernacle, undo their tents, and yet again move to the next stop. The movement through the desert, from the slavery of a sedentary Egyptian stability, through the unknown space separating one stop from the next, and to the next stage where everything will have to be rebuilt, is, in my opinion, the delicate and instable combination of meaning and lack thereof – the people must learn that the two are not merely opposites, but that they are intimately related. The two, as John Milton would put it, came into the world like two twins, one clinging to the other.

With all this in mind, it is worthwhile noting that “Mas’ei” ends with an orderly subdivision of the land of Israel according to the various tribes and the various families – the very parasha that emphasizes the importance of instability and uncertainty for the formation of collective nationhood and individual maturity, ends with an act of formal settlement. Borders. Settlements. Stability.

This is where Yedidia’s parasha becomes relevant – that stability which Israel attains within the borders of the Promised Land, is not something to take for granted. Settling the land and working within it, ploughing it and seeding it, harvesting, building the Bet Mikdash, the sanctuary for G-d in Jerusalem, are all acts which do not fix definitively that movement. Within the borders of their land, the Israelites will fall over and over again, they will lapse and forget and deny. And this happens not because the people are stiff-necked – the lapse within the borders of stability happens because the movement is always already there, the changes are always taking place, even while we are busy making plans and living our cozy, national / individual illusions of stability.

Deuteronomy 31: 23-30 – 23And he gave Joshua the son of Nun a charge, and said, Be strong and of a good courage: for thou shalt bring the children of Israel into the land which I sware unto them: and I will be with thee. 24 And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished, 25 That Moses commanded the Levites, which bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD, saying, 26 Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against thee. 27 For I know thy rebellion, and thy stiff neck: behold, while I am yet alive with you this day, ye have been rebellious against the LORD; and how much more after my death? 28 Gather unto me all the elders of your tribes, and your officers, that I may speak these words in their ears, and call heaven and earth to record against them. 29 For I know that after my death ye will utterly corrupt yourselves, and turn aside from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befall you in the latter days; because ye will do evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger through the work of your hands. 30 And Moses spake in the ears of all the congregation of Israel the words of this song, until they were ended.

Moses’ point is extremely simple – the physical presence of the prophet comes to an end, Joshua will lead the people into their new homeland, into the stability of a promised locus, and will ultimately abandon the Law. The written commandments become, therefore, a “witness against thee,” a mirror in which, to quote Gertrude in “Hamlet,” one sees one’s spots, the imperfections that characterize our behavior. The fixed material reality of the land and the promised borders are thus ultimately insufficient to provide the Israelites with a solution for chaotic and sinful behavior. What Moses does is sing a song to the people: he hands over a poem “in the ears of all the congregation,” a text as the source of both stability and instability, of both meaning and lack thereof.

My beloved son, Yedidia: the yoke of Divine commandments which you have begun to take on this very day is a yoke that changes, mutates as your life builds up, as time goes by. Every time you will put on your tefillin you will be another man, every morning you will be born anew, and your approach to religious performance will mutate every second of your life. Be free to change, allow yourself to move from one stage in your life to the next, and as in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, allow no one to rape your mutation, to enforce a system of order and univocal truths. The mitzvoth which you will be accountable for in a couple of months, are a means, not an objective – they are the desert and not the Promised Land. You begin today a process, a process which hopefully will allow you to contemplate life, to think, to doubt (as much as possible yes?). You are growing into an adult consciousness – search, don’t stop, move, rest, and then move again. Never lay back with the feeling of accomplished duty, for you have not accomplished, but have performed an action, a unique and fundamental action, within the endless vortex of eternal movement of this creation. Never take things for granted, ask question, object, be curious, and always, always ask questions. The Promised Land is not simply a geographical place, but a state of consciousness – borders, settlements, buildings are all allegories of human constructive actions, the expressions of the very human need for growth, stability and continuity. So you will not always be able to move, you will need to rest, you will need to interrupt, at times, the diatribe with life and accept things as they with the clear consciousness that the diatribe has only been paused, and that the Tabernacle of your faith will at some point in the future need to be taken apart so that you will be able to move ahead. The journey will continue, whether you are ready or not. So see the stability of your stop as pregnant with instability, see the presence as full of absence. Those who rely on the perpetual fixity of their own little Promised Land, and live comfortably within the borders of their univocal truths, are always liable to lose everything in the next movement, in the next journey. Always try to be aware of who you are, where you are, and what you are doing and never, never fear movement. “Be strong and of a good courage” – Mazal tov.

*Ph.D., Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University