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Wisdom of the Journey – Mattot/Mas’ei 5781

I was fortunate to have been in Philadelphia over the last week, including for July 4th. Judy and I went to watch the fireworks display over the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and sat in the street with thousands of other folks. It was the first time that we had been at a gathering of that size for more than a year and a half, and it was, as you can imagine, a good, patriotic feeling.

July 4th, 2021, Philadelphia. Photo credit: me

As we sat and watched the crowds milling about, angling for a good location to stand or sit, having ice cream, schmoozing with the strangers around them, we noticed the fantastic diversity around us. Americans of every color, Americans speaking multiple languages, some of which we could only guess at, Americans in various types of ethnic and religious clothing. It was absolutely heartwarming to see so many people, and so many different sorts of people, hanging out together in the city, celebrating our nation’s 245 years of independence.

Judy remarked, “If the founding fathers, who signed the Declaration of Independence a stone’s throw from this spot, were here today to see this crowd, would they recognize it as the nation they created?”

It was indeed a healthy ponderable. While a few of the signers were born in the British Isles, most were born on this side of the pond, but all of them were, up until that moment of independence, subjects of the English King. All men. All white. Some were plantation owners, where they owned enslaved Black people. 

Could they have possibly surveyed this crowd and made sense of the picture before them? Would they understand that equality, that citizenship, that certain unalienable rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, could be extended by our Creator to the mixed multitudes on the streets of Philadelphia in 2021?

And could they have possibly foreseen a group of aggrieved American citizens, whipped into a violent frenzy by an outgoing president, storm the building that houses the legislative heart of America, threaten the democratically-elected people who represent us, cause damage, kill a police officer, and capture the whole thing on video, as happened six months ago?

I would like to think that the founders of this nation might have expected both. I would like to think that they anticipated a range of events, from unity to schism and from homogeneity to the entire smorgasbord of humanity and for a whole gradient of possibilities in-between. I would like to think that they knew, as they set out on this journey that would last centuries, that they felt that what they were building in the New World was at least as resilient as the English monarchy, which was already 900 years old in their time. I would like to think that, as optimistic and idealistic as they were, they were confident that what they were setting up would be able to handle what would undeniably be a challenging journey for a new nation.

Of course, we the Jews have been around much longer. We have been witnesses to events that go back thousands of years. And who knows if our ancestors anticipated the travails that we have survived? We mark on Tish’ah BeAv, a week from tonight, the destructions of both First and Second Temples; dispersions, exiles, the Inquisition, the Shoah, and so forth. That we are still here, whether in Philadelphia, London, Buenos Aires, Tehran, Tel Aviv, or Pittsburgh, is nothing short of miraculous. Our tradition is that powerful.

Parashat Mas’ei, from which we read this morning, opens with the following verse (Bemidbar / Numbers 33:1):

אֵ֜לֶּה מַסְעֵ֣י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָצְא֛וּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לְצִבְאֹתָ֑ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹֽן׃

Elleh mas’ei venei yisrael asher yatze-u me-eretz mitzrayim letziv-otam beyad Moshe veAharon.

These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.

And what follows, of course, is a litany of the places in which the Israelites camped during their masa’im, their journeys. Rambam, in his Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide for the Perplexed, explains that this record of the 20-odd places in which the Israelites camped in their journey through the wilderness was absolutely necessary, because future generations may not believe that it was possible. The record of places, suggests Rambam, are there because otherwise, the miracle of 2 million people living for 40 years in the wilderness simply may not be believed.

And maybe you would not believe the things that have happened in these United States, either. Maybe you would not believe that, a mere 85 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, that the Southern states would secede from the Union over the issue of slavery. Maybe you would not believe that the remaining states would have to go to war to bring them back into the Union. Maybe you would not believe that women were not allowed to vote until 1920, and that it would require an act of Congress in 1965 to ensure voting rights for Black Americans. Maybe you would not believe that presidents would be assassinated, that our nation would fight in distant wars overseas, that an American could walk on the moon, and many other features along the journey that we have not yet encountered.

Maybe.

But just as we the Jews are resilient, having outlasted many of our historical enemies, the democracy in which we live is in fact resilient. Flawed, yes. But still holding up under pressure.

On Wednesday evening, Judy and I were walking through the historic district of Philadelphia, and as we were strolling past brick townhouses from the 18th century, we spotted many mezuzot. I imagined that some of them may have been from the Colonial period, although one might hope that the kelafim contained therein have since been replaced. Certainly, Congregation Mikveh Israel, which dates to 1740, is still there (although not in its original building).

The rabbi of Mikveh Israel through a hefty chunk of the 19th century was Sabato Morais. Born in Italy and of Sephardic extraction, Morais was not only a hazzan and rabbi, but also was the founding president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1886. (JTS was initially located at Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, the Spanish-Portuguese congregation which is the oldest in America and the sister congregation to Mikveh Israel.)

Rabbi Hazzan Sabato Morais

Morais was a rationalist, rejecting kabbalah, as many of those associated with JTS did in its early years, and he also highlighted the flourishing of Jewish literature and poetry in Andalusia in the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, a subtle bias which exists to this day at the Seminary. Although it was surely not his intent to create the Conservative movement, it was certainly an objective of the early Seminary to unify the rational center of Jewish life, far from the theological extremes.

In the context of the American Civil War, during a sermon in Philadelphia in 1863, he spoke of unity not only in Judaism, but in public life as well. Referencing the country of his birth, he applauded the need to fight for unity:

The aspirations of Dante, the inspiring songs of Petrarch, the longing of every good and true Italian, have they not ever been for the unity of the Italian peninsula . . . Why have the dungeon and the gibbet proved fruitless, and the brothers Bandiera run to martyrdom as to a festive board, but because the idea of a united Italy kindled the hearts of her children?

(Attilio and Emilio Bandiera were Milanese nationalists killed during the revolution of 1848, fighting for a unified Italy.)

Morais stood for unity: unity of Italy, unity of the United States, and he was also a pivotal figure in seeking unity in the ranks of American Jewry.

Our resilience in Judaism relies on the idea, however tenuous in today’s Jewish world, that even though we disagree on some theological issues, we are still one people. Let us hope that we as Americans can see our way through to a unity that will guarantee our resilience for centuries to come.

Let us pray that the American journey does not end in chaos and dysfunction; that we can find a way to cast aside the extremism in our midst, to focus on the greater good, and to move forward as a society.

Philadelphia is a city that today is still marked by the presence of Benjamin Franklin, whose pithy quotes adorn many a statue and building around the city. One that we encountered read, “The doors of wisdom are never shut.”

These words strike me as being so Jewish. What is the source of our resilience throughout history? It is Torah – our ancient wisdom, which we continue to revisit and re-learn and re-interpret. 

I would like to think that Franklin might take contemporary America’s pulse and as his prescription for our contemporary ills, simply repeat those words. Those doors are not shut. The wisdom is there – the wisdom of unity in the face of division. We know where we have been; we remember the journey. 

Let us put that wisdom to work.

Shabbat shalom.

3 replies on “Wisdom of the Journey – Mattot/Mas’ei 5781”

Thank you for this excellent post, Rabbi. Putting our history and present days into proper perspective is so very important since in high-strung times, balanced perceptions and common sense, not to forget morality, are so easily subverted.

Eloquent but appears to ignore how divided the American people are, with democracy hanging by a thread, as well as the Jewish community,. here and in Israel. Far more pessimistic than you, maybe because am older!

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