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Parashat D'varim contains its share of rebukes. Moshe Rabbeinu, attempting to summarize and put in perspective all that has transpired in the last 40 plus years, avails himself of the opportunity to chastise the people for their frequent failures. (Moshe, as you might recall, does a little "selective remembering" here, an path we've trod down before in these musings, so we'll leave that point to those other musings, like last year's Remembering to Forget or Forgetting to Remember?", or "Owing Up" from 5758. See the links at the end of this page.)
D'varim begins this way:
1 These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan. — Through the wilderness, in the Arabah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab,
2 it is eleven days from Horeb to Kadesh-barnea by the Mount Seir route.
3 It was in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, that Moses addressed the Israelites in accordance with the instructions that the Lord had given him for them
4 after he had defeated Sihon king of the Amorites, who dwelt in Heshbon, and King Og of Bashan, who dwelt at Ashtaroth [and] Edrei.
5 On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching. He said: (JTS Translation)
In this preface to Moshe's oration that starts in verse 6, note the words of verse 2. What this verse basically tells us is that it took eleven days to get from Mt. Sinai (Horeb being another name for Mt. Sinai) to Kadesh-Barnea, which is on the threshold of the land Gd promised to the Israelites.
The implication, as Rashi and so many other scholars point out, is that in just eleven days, had the Israelites been faithful to Gd, they could have entered the promised land, and avoided 40 years of wandering about the desert.
It gives one pause to wonder what equivalent "eleven day" opportunities we have lost in our own lives due to a lack of faith. So near, yet so far.
It is also a lesson about the potential of liminal places, of thresholds and boundaries-and the danger of turning them into barriers of roadblocks. Consider all that happened in or near Kadesh-Barnea--The sending forth of the spies, and their fearful report and lack of faith; the attempt of the Israelites to go forth even after Gd said hey could not enter the land for their lack of faith, and their defeat at the hands of the Amalekites and Canaanites; Miriam's death and burial; Moshe's striking of the rock which resulted in denial of his entry into the promised land. All these and more took place at or near Kadesh-Barnea, on the threshold of the promised land itself. With faith, the Israelites could have passed through this liminal place and crossed into the promised land a mere 11 days after leaving Mt. Sinai. Yet once Kadesh-Barnea became a boundary as a result of the Israelites lack of faith, it seems it was destined to remain a boundary, even an obstacle to their eventual entry into the promised land. For Moshe, it was the ultimate obstacle. When you make a place that is liminal, a threshold, a border, into a barrier, then crossing past it becomes harder. Once we make a threshold of the liminal events, places and things in our lives a real barrier, then crossing that boundary becomes harder.
In both cases, that of missed opportunities, and difficult boundaries of our own creation, faith, or lack thereof, is the key element. What are the qualities that Caleb possessed which enabled him to see what others could not, to have faith they did not? (I suppose we can perhaps attribute those same qualities to Joshua, although somehow I think his endorsement of Caleb's position after the fact, rather than Joshua himself countering the fears of the other 10 spies, calls into question his faith just a little bit.) And, not to slight him, we should ask what qualities Moshe possessed that gave him such faith, faith enough to lead the people even after learning he would not get to enter the promised land himself. And, to be fair, the quality that gave him his faith in Gd all along, despite his occasional small transgressions like in the waters of Meribah incident.
Where does such faith come from? I suppose for some, seeing great miracles, such as the plagues, and the parting of the Sea of Reeds might be enough, although that did not seem to be the case for the Israelites, as their faith was quite short-lived. For a few very lucky people, it comes in conversations with or visions from Gd, and for one lucky (?) man named Moshe, in a relatively intimate relationship with Gd.
And faith seems to be challenged so very often by the vicissitudes of life. Yet it is these very changes, shifts, fortunes that hold the key--for they are the liminal areas, the borders that we can turn into boundaries with a careless lack of faith.
So how do we, mere mortals of no particular significance, learn to have the faith required to get us where we are going in eleven days rather than 40 years? How do we learn to react to life's vicissitudes as opportunities and challenges, and not roadblocks?
If you thought I was going to answer those questions, then my apologies. I've done my job just to get you thinking about it. I don't know where you might search for the answers. I do know one place I would heartily recommend as a good place to look for assistance in seeking the answers -- our Sacred (and not so scared) Jewish texts and centuries of wisdom and experience.
Some might say it is a pointless quest, chasing after rainbows. Our ancestors didn't get it figured out. And, judging from our history, we still haven't really figured it out. But isn't allowing that to stop us from pursuing the elusive answers in itself a lack of faith?
So what if we haven't figured it all out yet? Stephen Hawking just admitted he was wrong when he said that black holes would completely destroy any matter that entered them, thus violating the basic physical principles of conservation of energy and mass. You keep looking at something long enough, you come up with new viewpoints, new ideas. Those ancient (and not so ancient) texts of ours remain worth turning and turning yet again. Everything really is in it, we just haven't seen it all yet.
So stop making borders into roadblocks. I'm not suggesting a "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" approach. I'd recommend a little more caution. (Admiral Farragaut may have won the battle of Mobile Bay, but a high price was paid for it.) Just dip your toes into the sea of Torah and see what happens. Maybe, with a little faith, you'll make it to your promised land in just 11 days.
©2004 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some previous musings on this parasha
D'varim 5763--Remembering to Forget or Forgetting to
D'varim 5762-L'chu v'niva'ch'chah and the Twelve Steps
D'varim 5759-Owning Up
D'varim 5760-1-Kumu v'Ivru
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