“Into the Woods” and into Elul
“Once upon a time in a far-off kingdom, lived a young maiden, a sad young lad, and a childless bakery” thus opens the story that develops into Stephen Sondheim’s current revival on Broadway, Into the Woods. Cleverly weaving our classic fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, Sondheim composes a fable with classic, yet new significance. He begins with the foundation of the moral lessons of the children’s fairy tales like Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk, and builds upon them by watching as their characters interact with one another.
It is in this interaction where Sondheim’s brilliance shines. As its title suggests, Into the Woods focuses not on the individual stories, but on “the Woods”.
Little Red Riding Hood must traverse the woods to get to grandma=s house; Jack must travel through the woods to sell his precious cow; Cinderella wishes at the tree marking her mother’s grave in the woods. Sondheim has interpreted the existence of the woods in these different fairy tales as an obvious literary foil.
Into the Woods contends that Little Red, Cinderella, Jack and a whole host of fairy tale protagonists all exist in the same woods. It is there that they find their future; there they live their story; there that they change their lives. Only through their experience of wandering through the Woods do the characters grow, learn life lessons and into who they are at the end of their moral tale.
It was not Sondheim, however, who first conceived of a wandering people. We have spent the last few months reading the story of our people’s wandering — not through the woods, but through the desert. And now, as we stand with b’nai Israel on the threshold of the Promised Land, gazing at our future, we listen as our shepherd addresses us one last time.
Toward the end of this week’s parashah, we encounter a statement by Moses that must have struck an interesting chord with b’nai Israel. We read “Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deut. 29:3). Through all of the miracles, revelation, pillars of fire and smoke, manna, splitting of the sea and destruction of the Egyptians, the Israelites had never truly comprehended the grandeur of God? It is simply inconceivable that a people could have experienced such imminence and still remained impervious to the power of God. However, this is precisely what Moses meant to covey.
Yes, the people had experienced first-hand the power and might of God, but, as many of our commentators on this verse write, “blood and fire and pillars of smoke” do not necessarily create a relationship with God. The generation of the Exodus demonstrated that the ultimate proof of God’s existence did not promote the covenantal relationship. Despite the miracles they witnessed, they continued to defile their relationship with God with the sin of the golden calf, the slander of the spies and the uprising of Korah, to name a few.
The 16th century Italian commentator Moshe Hefetz writes on this verse in his commentary on Ki Tavo, “You witnessed all those great wonders but only appreciated their full significance just now, at this time, after they had receded from view, as if you had to this point lacked sight and hearing” (Milekhet Mahshevet, Warsaw Ed., 315). Hefetz is observing that the people of Israel did not understand the miracles because they needed distance from them. It was their time in the desert, wandering, gaining perspective and experience and growing as a people that allowed them to appreciate the full significance of the miracles.
Like Sondheim’s characters, the people of Israel needed some time in “the woods”. The true significance of the Exodus was not in the signs and wonders, but in the time it took for the people to become Israelites. Their experience in the desert served as the vehicle for transformation from a wandering mass to a People ready to live as a Nation in the Land of Israel. Moses’ statement, then, cannot be viewed as a critique, but as a compliment. B’nai Israel had made it through the desert and had matured into the people with “the mind to understand, the eyes to see and the ears to hear.”
With Judaism, we are continually in and out of “the woods”. This month of Elul leading up to the High Holidays is time in “the woods”. Elul has traditionally been the month for introspectio, a month to take our individual heshbon ha’nefesh (accounting of our soul) and examine our relationship with God. It is a period to develop as individuals to emerge like b’nai Israel from the desert with the mind, ears and eyes we need to approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
May the rest of the month of Elul be time spent in “the woods,” growing spiritually as you ready yourself for the High Holidays.