Such times as these (Parashat Matot-Mas’ei)

Posted on July 17, 2020

by Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis

In the first book of The Lord of the Rings, the wizard Gandalf recounts for the young hobbit Frodo the twists and turns and the confluences of history that have led to the terrible dangers now confronting the Shire, and all the world beyond.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” says Frodo.

“So do I,” replies Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times.  But that is not for them to decide.”

Seth and I have been citing this passage to each other regularly lately, when one or the other of us is feeling disheartened by the news.  I won’t bother for tonight listing all the things that I wish, on behalf of everyone here, need not be happening in our time.
But, as Tolkien implied—writing, as he was, in the aftermath of the World Wars—we are not the first generation to have found ourselves in an entanglement of crises, with forces at work beyond what any of us as individuals can keep at bay and without obvious routes to get from here to where we need to go.

Our Torah and Haftarah portions for this week make clear that living in times of crisis—with all-too-human leaders, deaths that should have been avoided, and people lusting after freedom to do whatever they want, regardless of the consequences—is not only a problem of our time or of Tolkien’s but, alas, is probably part of the human condition—

To which I say:  If the hobbit whose responsibility it is to go drop a ring in a volcano and make the dangers go away, could go ahead and do it already, I would be most grateful to get back to our more normal anxieties and tribulations.

Of course, a large part of what our current set of crises reveals is that the safety that many of us previously thought we were living in was a privilege all along reserved for hobbits at home in the Shire, if you will:  those with the right skin color, wealth base, religion, and sexual orientation.  Meanwhile, though, with COVID numbers now soaring in so many parts of the country that have reopened, the news is a daily reminder of those things most of us try hard to ignore most of the time, except, maybe, during the High Holy Days:  we’re more mortal, and life is less guaranteed, than we usually like to admit.

“All we have to decide,” Gandalf continues in his speech to Frodo—
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

And that is our challenge as well:  Given that there is much we still don’t know about what life will and won’t be in the continuing time of COVID-19, given that those of us with privilege at our disposal still have those privileges, while even privilege cannot bring back the chance to go to school, go to work, walk down the street, mourn loved ones, celebrate milestones, and take care of each other in the ways that we are used to—all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

 

This week’s Torah portion, at the end of the Book of Numbers, lists all the places that the Israelites have encamped on their long journey from Egypt to the Jordan River, which they are about to cross to enter the Promised Land.  The list highlights significant places of blessing (such as when the Israelites found a large and nourishing oasis in Elim), and of places of loss (such as when Aaron died at Mount Hor).  Some of the places the Torah lists are well known to us, like Mount Sinai; others are mentioned nowhere else in the Torah.  It’s like looking through your own photo album and not remembering the circumstances of some of the pictures.  The places named were worthy of note, but their exact stories are lost.

In the Torah portion, Moses then gives the Israelites directives for the future:  leaders are appointed; instructions are given for how to build a just infrastructure in the land they will inhabit; plans are made for how to break cycles of hatred and revenge; models are suggested for how to keep the peace among tribes.

This outline from the Torah offers a beautiful answer to Gandalf’s challenge:  what we can do with the time given us—

First, as we live through this time now, as our Torah portion does, we need to capture the places we have been, physical and otherwise.  To imbue our days and interactions with significance, we need to remind ourselves:  what is the story of now?  What has differentiated this day from yesterday?  What along the way has been hard?  What have the losses been—and how have I mourned them?  What have been the blessings?

Second, says the Torah portion, we need to look, with hope, toward the future.  What do we want to help build now, through educating ourselves, supporting and being leaders, and setting up systems for ourselves and our communities (large and small) that will carry all of us well now and after the pandemic is through?  Who is in need of my support?  How can I disrupt cycles at home or in society that are harmful and lead to pain?  How can my actions lead to better ways and lead to peace?

Finally, says the Torah portion, it is not that every time and place needs to be special, or significant, with a story of its own.  Sometimes a moment along the way is just a moment along the way.  If I lost my temper this morning, or had a bowl of ice cream I enjoyed, it does not have to be a whole story.  But, we are reminded too, that over time all the legs of our journey do add up, and even when the trip feels insufferably long, all these stages eventually will get us to where we’re going.

The Israeli poet Shifra Alon wrote—

Not every day does one encounter God,
And not at every moment can one give oneself to prayer;
Nor can every hour be an hour of loving-kindness.
A person wanders and strays before reaching the journey’s end.
We start over again, and again we lose our way,
Groping and searching for our forgotten path.
But they—those who search and wander—
God seeks them out with candles.

Along this journey, may we continue to search and wander, may we look around us for moments of awe, acknowledging blessings, and acknowledging what we have lost as well.  May we be candles for each other’s way—and may we work together to light a new path through this wilderness and beyond.