January 27, 2020

Torah portion: Time flies

I attended a memorial for a beloved colleague recently, and his widow remembered how at funerals he would invite people not to look at the birth and death dates on memorial plaques and grave markers, but to focus on the dash between the dates — that’s the part that matters. 

This week, in our annual reading of Parashat Chukat in the Book of Numbers, we encounter what we might call the dash between the dates. Numbers seems to tell the story of the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert — their high and low points, that first generation’s most colorful characters, their learning to live in relationship with each other, with laws, with God. 

The opening words of Numbers, which we read a few weeks ago, tell us the date: “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt …” (Numbers 1:1). And its end chapters will place us in the last few months of the 40th year. But in the middle comes barely a mention of what transpired in the intervening 38 years. 

Chukat “dashes” from the second year to the 40th year with only a vague acknowledgment that it is doing so. One chapter into the portion, we receive the briefest of death notices: “Miriam died there and was buried there” (Numbers 20:1). In fact, two of the three sibling leaders of the Israelites (Miriam and Aaron) die in this Torah portion — deaths we later learn happen in the 40th year. Also in Chukat, Moses himself is told by God that he will die soon — at the end of the 40 years in the wilderness, before the Israelites enter the Promised Land.

Included also in this parasha is a long list of where the Israelites stopped to camp along the way during their 40-year journey in the wilderness. Some of these places appear only here, and we’re not told why the people stay there or what happened. 

Amid the list of such places comes the phrase u’mi-midbar Mattanah (Numbers 21:18). The midrash writers take note that u’mi-midbar means, literally, “from the wilderness,” and “mattanah” means “a gift,” so they looked for a different reading, a different meaning for these words other than just as place names. 

Picking up on their teaching, we might ask, what is the gift of the wilderness, and of the 38 years whose stories go unrecorded? That question resonates in an untitled poem by my colleague and friend, the midrashist, poet and novelist Rabbi Zoe Klein of Temple Isaiah:

“There is Egypt, 

There is the Desert, 

And there is the Promised Land …

We talk of Egypt often,

Every holiday, every prayer service

Mentions we once were slaves,

Recalls our hardships under Pharaoh.

We talk of the Promised Land often.

Every holiday, every prayer service

Longs for Israel,

For the Voice to come forth from Zion,

We turn to the east,

Reminisce Jerusalem.

But rarely do we talk of, or pray about, the Desert.

Yet that is the region in which most of us are,

Pushing forward in the wilderness,

Dragging our footsteps across that forty-year stretch

Of pristine, barren, moonscape.

It is there we encounter truth,

It is there we encounter miracle …”

Indeed, we might each ask about our own lives that seem to be going by so quickly! What are the gifts of the middle? Of wandering? Of uncertainty? Of wilderness? What are the gifts of the getting from here to there? Of the dash between the birth date and the death date? What are the gifts of the moments less noted, the years that pass, however quickly or slowly, without demarcation? 

Perhaps the human tendency to not take note often enough is one of the reasons Judaism offers so many invitations to notice. Every year our long list of holidays — including the Sabbath every single week — invites us to stop and observe and remark upon, among other things, time passing. And all the many ways Jews mark transitions with lifecycle events — births, bar and bat mitzvah, confirmation, weddings, anniversaries, aging, funerals — insist that we notice life changing, life passing and, more importantly, life being lived, appreciated, celebrated. 

Then there is the Jewish tradition of reciting a hundred blessings a day (a long list of them and when to say them can be found in most prayer books, to get you started). If we take up our tradition’s invitation to notice and praise God for what might otherwise remain unremarkable, then will “we encounter truth,” then will “we encounter miracle,” then will we fill our “dash,” our lives — whether wilderness or garden — with gifts, with blessing.