Jewish Time

Masei Mattot By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jul 13, 1996 / 5756 | Torah Commentary

The tantalizingly fragmented book of Numbers closes with a new generation of Israelites, born and bred in the wilderness, poised to cross the Jordan from the west at Jericho. They will not be led in their invasion of Canaan by Moses – who is destined to share the fate of the generation of the Exodus, nurtured in slavery – but by Joshua.

Among the final acts of Moses, before he is to ascend Mount Nebo for one grand view of the land whose possession has been the goal of the last 40 years of his life, is one that has long stirred my imagination. Moses recounts the circuitous path taken from Egypt to the plains of Moab. In chapter 33 he lists in order the 42 places at which the Israelites encamped during their arduous and protracted odyssey: “These were the marches of the Israelites who started out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by the Lord. Their marches by starting points, were as follows …”

The manner of reading these 49 verses in the synagogue – quickly and without pause – only reinforces our inclination to ignore them. Why preserve the names of obscure sites at which Israel once took refuge? The passage is also noteworthy because Moses acts entirely on his own initiative. The Torah records no divine command instructing him to record the history of Israel’s journey.

Rashi, paraphrasing the midrash, offers two contrasting explanations as to what might have impelled Moses. The first suggests that Moses wished to dramatize the presence of God’s protecting love: Israel would not have survived the ordeal of four decades in the wilderness without the repeated touch of God’s grace. The second adopts a human perspective: Imagine a king whose son is ailing. They go forth in search for a cure, which they find in a distant place. As they retrace their steps home, they reminisce: “Here we slept; here we froze; here you came down with a bad headache.” Both explanations imbue a temporary residence with lasting significance: a signpost of God’s nearness or a memento of our human suffering. In either case, personal experience weaves strange places into the tapestry of our consciousness.

And this is the point of the list. We are composites of our past experiences. Self–understanding will forever elude us as long as we remain in the dark about the details of whence we came. In the aggregate, these 42 sites contributed to shaping the character of a nation in formation. Implicitly the list compiled by Moses carries an argument for the importance of historical knowledge, which he would reiterate unambiguously in his swan song: “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past; ask your father, he will inform you, your elders, they will tell you (Deuteronomy 32:7).” The Torah shifted the bedrock of faith from nature to history, and thereby determined the character of Christianity and Islam no less than Judaism.

What attunes me to this lesson at the moment is that I have just returned from heading a Seminary leadership mission to Israel, Moscow and Prague. Seminary programs brought us to the first two destinations: an international conference in Jerusalem on the sanctity of the city in Judaism, Christianity and Islam; and the first commencement of 17 graduates from our joint Jewish studies program with the elite Russian State University for the Humanities after five years of intensive study. An honorary doctorate for me from the University only added to the historic import of the occasion. To have acclaimed the work of a Jewish scholar and leader in the midst of an election campaign rife with anti–Semitism was a political act of exceptional courage by Yuri Afanasyev, the University’s rector, and his faculty.

But aside from Seminary business and election results of global consequence in both Israel and Russia, on which we received riveting briefings from many quarters, what made this trip unforgettable for me was the overwhelming power of the ever–present Jewish past in each country. And I speak not only of the monuments which saturate Israel and Prague (including Terezin) with vivid reminders of the Jewish past. As I received my honorary doctorate in Moscow, I could not help but identify with the heroic, lifelong struggle of the scholar Simon Dubnov to fashion the field of East European Jewish history, to compose a ten–volume World History of the Jewish People and to inspire a generation of academic disciples entirely outside the framework of the Russian university. Born in White Russia in 1860, Dubnov was never honored by a Russian institution of higher learning, never invited by one to join its faculty, indeed, never even permitted to attend one as a student.

To visit Israel, Moscow and Prague in a single trip is to experience the scope and diversity, the intellectual acuity and spiritual nobility, the tragedy and resilience which make up the warp and woof of Jewish history. It is to witness the constant intersecting of Jewish religious culture and social life with the surrounding world – Greco–Roman, Renaissance, Russian and Central European. It is to hurtle from Herod’s temple mount to Terezin, from the remarkable excavations of Zippori to the ossified Judaism of the Choral Synagogue in Moscow, from the purported grave of Maimonides in Tiberias to the authentic and poignant cemetery in Prague’s old Jewish quarter. It is to realize that Jewish identity is an elaborate mosaic of pieces and patterns from many disparate places and times. The content of Jewish consciousness bears the imprint of our unique national history that spans more than three millennia and much of the world.

Nearly 200 years ago, the European founder of Conservative Judaism, Zacharias Frankel, was born in Prague. On the way to the concentration camp of Terezin, where my grandfather died exactly 52 years ago, we passed several road signs to Teplice, Frankel’s first rabbinic post. There, and later in nearby Dresden, his next post, he arrived at a religious position between radical reform and intransigent orthodoxy that came to be known as historical Judaism.

The term “historical Judaism” was meant to convey that the sacred texts of Judaism do not exhaust the normative content of Jewish religious consciousness. Complementing the written text is the vast historical experience of the Jewish people, whose pathos obligates future generations even as its endless diversity warrants accommodating to new conditions. Frankel’s inclusive conception of Judaism marvelously caught the twofold reality of Jewish Prague, as symbolized by the two large clocks atop its former town hall, the standard clock in the tower with Roman numerals on its face and the Jewish clock beneath it abutting the roof in Hebrew letters with hands moving counter–clockwise. As Conservative Jews, we are committed to cultivating the full gamut of the Jewish experience mediated through the duality (and often polarity) of halakha and history. To live Jewishly is to keep time by different clocks.

Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch