This past week I had the honor of going to the White House to represent our community at an evening event celebrating Jewish Heritage Month. It was a thrill to be present, to hobnob with the Who’s Who of American Jewry, to listen to the US Marine Band play “Hava Nagila,” hear Ben Platt and Micaela Diamond sing, and – most of all – to be in the East Room with the President, First Lady, Vice-President, and the first Jewish Second Gentleman. The highlight of the evening was the President’s remarks which, beyond being prefaced with an update on the debt ceiling crisis, were noteworthy for two reasons. First, and we will return to this point, the focus of the speech was not so much on the contributions of American Jews to America, but rather on an outline of the administration’s emerging response to antisemitism. The speech was a policy preview of an initiative being spearheaded by the Second Gentleman and Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism.
The second noteworthy aspect of the President’s speech was not his policy recommendations but his personal reflections – remarks which, though I can’t say for sure, I felt came a bit more from his heart than from the teleprompter in front of him. In explaining the motivations behind his stance against antisemitism, the President reminisced about his family dinner table growing up and how his father would talk about his outrage that America didn’t bomb the railroad tracks to the concentration camps and that America had turned away the St. Louis ship and its refugees. The President then described how he has taken each of his grandchildren at the age of 14 to Dachau. To see the concentration camp, of course, but even more to see the beautiful homes just outside Dachau’s gate, homes in which life continued uninterrupted even as the most horrific crimes against humanity were perpetrated within the camp just yards aways. To bear witness not just to the evils of the Holocaust, but to the perils of indifference. It was the inactions of the past, the President explained, that were the impetus for the present actions of his administration.
And while the focus of the President’s speech was largely on the administration’s response to antisemitism, the point he was making was a larger one. The President spoke of how in 2017, having just lost his son and having stepped down from public life, he witnessed the marching mobs in Charlottesville carrying their torches and hate-filled bile, and how the response from the highest office of the land was that “there were very fine people on both sides.” It was at that moment that he decided to stay engaged in the work of our time and to run for reelection. I was reminded of the Talmudic principle shtikah k’hoda·ah domya, silence is akin to assent. A deafening silence, a moral equivocation that impelled the present President to action. The President’s speech was not what I expected on a night given over to Jewish Heritage, but as a meditation on the prompts for moral behavior – that it is by way of the failures, fumblings, and inactions of the past that our present course of action is set into motion – it was as inspiring, and Jewish, a message as I could have hoped for.
Because what I knew and know, and the President and his speechwriter presumably did not know, is that the message he delivered is exactly the message of this week’s Torah reading. This week we kick off the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible. In English, the book is called “Numbers” because it begins with a census of the Israelites. Given its contents, its Hebrew name is a better fit: B’midbar, meaning “in the wilderness.” The wilderness experience of the Israelites is more than a matter of geography; there is a spiritual topography at play. From the orderly beginnings of the book the Israelites wander into a spiritual chaos of sorts. There is a narrative arc of the Torah: Genesis – our foundational origin stories. Exodus – the story of Israel’s redemption at the sea and then our covenant with God at Mount Sinai. Leviticus – in all its detail and minutiae, a blueprint for achieving holiness in this world, a spiritual map to help us find the holy in the profane, the pure in an impure world.
B’midbar is different. B’midbar is about spiritual fatigue, loss of faith, a moral compass spinning out of control, anarchy, and the unraveling of a people. There are too many missteps to count, but some of the lowlights include: Israel kvetching over food, Aaron and Miriam’s challenge to Moses’s leadership, the sin of the spies and their unfaithful report, the rebellion of Korah and 250 of his followers, the two and a half tribes who asked to not enter the Promised Land, the death of Aaron and Miriam, and Moses striking the rock in frustration and being barred from entering the land. The nineteenth-century biblical commentator Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explained that there is a fundamental difference between the book of B’midbar and the prior books of the Torah. The other books represent an ideal: how the world ought to be and how people should behave. The book of B’midbar represents the real: how the world actually operates and the stark and often ugly reality of human shortcoming. A physical wilderness, but really a moral wilderness: a people longing to return to Egypt; a people at odds with each other, with themselves, with their leadership, and with their God; a people who will never reach the Promised Land and who lie unburied in the wilderness.
Bleak as B’midbar may be, it is, nevertheless, there for a reason. It provides the literary counterpoint from which we should cultivate our own behavior. Up until this fourth book, when we read the Torah, our task has been to aspire to reach the spiritual heights of our forebearers, the courage of Moses, the leadership of Miriam, and the faith of the Israelites as they crossed the sea. B’midbar turns that equation on its head. It is, if you will, the dayenu song in reverse. Last month we sang dayenu at our seder tables, our cup overflowing with gratitude. It would have been enough had we enjoyed but one miracle, and then we were blessed with even more. That is not the case in B’midbar. It would have been enough if the Israelites had only lost faith in Moses, but then they did so again, and then they lost faith in God, and then publicly and then violently and then and then and then. B’midbar calls on us to read about Israel’s failures, fumbles, and losses of faith – a study not of our heroes but our anti-heroes. Our task is not to emulate but the opposite – to learn from their mistakes and make sure that we ourselves never follow in the missteps of the generation of the midbar. How can we, in our own lives, cultivate the resilience that the Israelites lacked? How shall we, unlike Korah and his cohort of rebels, house debate and dissent in a manner that does not tear the community apart? What are the leadership lessons we can learn from Israel’s failures? Of the five books of the Torah, B’midbar, like the wilderness itself, is a slog, the most difficult to get through. But it is also my favorite – because it is a book of failures and thus a book from which we can learn most.
To engage with an uncomfortable past, to be made to wince at the could’ve, would’ve, should’ves of yesteryear is not a pleasant experience. We have to be careful lest we get mired in that past, left to perseverate in it. And yet we must remember that engaging with the past is an act of moral development and growth. As Richard Neustadt and Ernest May wrote: “Vicarious experience acquired from the past, even the remote past, gives such guidance to the present that history becomes more than its own reward.” (Thinking in Time, p. 232) When I was in DC, I had a few hours before the White House event. I went to the US Holocaust Museum and Memorial, a place that I have visited many times and one with which I would love our community to build a relationship. The museum has a must-see temporary exhibition right now on America and the Holocaust. You may be familiar with it, as the exhibition was the basis for Ken Burns’s recent documentary, a sobering study and indictment of America regarding what we knew about the Holocaust and what we did, or more accurately, did not do in response. A study that begins not with the tracks to Auschwitz or the voyage of the St. Louis, but the May 1933 book burning in Berlin, ninety years ago this month. The exhibition is first rate, but there is nothing easy about the experience of walking through it: engaging with the questions of what Americans knew, even objected to, yet failed to respond to. The museum is a profound act of moral education, a point made explicit by its other temporary exhibition on Burma’s path to Genocide and the present-day persecution of the Rohingya. We remember not just to remember or to remind ourselves of the importance of standing vigilant against the recrudescence of antisemitism in our time. We revisit our uncomfortable past because we face the same questions today. In Burma, in China, in Ukraine – our world does not lack for humanitarian crises. We know what we know, we may even know what we object to, and yet once again we fall short of history’s moral measuring stick. How will the museums of tomorrow judge our inactions of today?
And while we must be ever true to the “never again” watchword of our people – we need not invoke the Holocaust to learn the lesson of reading B’midbar. Ours is a curious and deeply problematic cultural moment in terms of our willingness to engage with the past. We have been extended two equally unappealing options of how to respond when confronted with an uncomfortable past which we would rather not confront. Either we dismiss or deny it, brush it under the rug, deem it politicized, and call it fake. Or we make an idol of the past and hold the present hostage to the sins of yesteryear, forgetting that today is different than yesterday. Not so, says our tradition. History is an instrument of learning that can be both used and abused. We stand face-to-face with that which causes us to squirm, interrogating our history for its continuities and discontinuities, asking what is the same and what is different, when it repeats and when it just rhymes, in order to grow wiser and more vigilant. We grow from the past but are careful never to become prisoners to it.
If there was an overarching sin of the desert generation, it was a failure of memory. The Israelites either forgot the lessons of their past to the point that they were doomed to repeat it, or they were so beholden to the past they were unable to see the horizon in front of them. Either way, it was their inability to integrate the lessons of the past into their present that impeded their forward momentum. Far too often far too many of us suffer from the selfsame malady of memory – getting older but not wiser. The book of B’midbar teaches that the key to our future is found in an active and healthy relationship with our past. Painful as it may be, we must face our mistakes, our failures, and our foibles in order that we may face our future, reaching into our past so that one day, together, we can enter the Promised Land.
Neustadt, Richard E. and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers. New York: Freedom Press,1986.