“In that small cafe;
The park across the way;
The children’s carousel;
The chestnut trees;
The wishin’ well.
“I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places…
I’ll find you
In the morning sun
And when the night is new.
I’ll be looking at the moon,
But I’ll be seeing you.”
The relationship described in the Fain/Kahal song is so strong that it imbues the very landscape with the absent loved one. A similarly powerful relationship between God and the Israelites is described in midrash on the Torah portion Masei, with its 42-stage journey recitation. (Mattot, the penultimate, and Masei, the final portion of Numbers/Bamidbar, are read together in non-leap years.) And in many ways, the siddur is designed to call prayer participants and God to remember “the park across the way,” like the stages of the desert journey, prompting renewed recognition.
“…I’ll Be Seeing You.”
This haftarah for Mattot includes God’s reminiscence of a desert honeymoon with the people:
I accounted to your favor
The devotion of your youth,
Your love as a bride —
How you followed Me in the wilderness,
In a land not sown… — Jer 2:2, JPS translation*
(mentioned also in last week’s blog)
In the haftorah for Masei, in verses immediately following the honeymoon recollection, God notes that “they abandoned Me and went after delusion and were deluded.” Enumerations of Israel’s failures outnumber recollections of good times.
The Torah portion, on the other hand, provides — at least on the face of it — a less judgmental narrative. We read, e.g: “They set out from Alush and encamped at Rephidim; it was there that the people had no water to drink” (Numbers/Bamidbar 33:14). There is no haranguing the people for their harassment of Moses or failure of faith.**
But maybe, as with many an old family tale, everyone at the table already knows what went wrong at each stage (and who blames whom), and this recitation is meant to illustrate something else.
According to Magen Avraham, a 17th Century Polish commentator, the 42-stage journey of the Israelites is itself one name of God. Another midrash relates:
“These are the stages of the children of Israel” (Num. 33:1). The listing of the stages may be understood by a parable. A king had a son who was sick. He took him to a distant place to have him cured. On their way back, their father began listing the stages of the journey: Here we slept, here we were chilled, here you had a headache. Likewise, the Holy One said to Moses: List for Me all the places where Israel caused Me anxiety. Hence: “These are the stages.”
— Bialik & Ravnitsky* 100:126, based on Tanhuma B, Masei 3
A variation: On the return trip “the king reminded his child of all the places they stopped on their journey toward treatment, as a reminder of the king’s loving care of his son and their relationship.”
In a commentary on the Avot v’Imahot [ancestors] blessing of the Amidah, Judith Z. Abrams notes that the blessing was “traditionally conceived as a sort of bank account into which the Patriarchs and Matriarchs deposited funds of righteousness that were so great that they covered all future generations.” (p.244, Mishkan T’filah*). We might also understand this passage, in light of this week’s portion as a recitation of the early stages in a multi-generational relationship, a way of orienting ourselves and God together in the present.
At many other points in the prayers, we mention the age-old relationship: You’re the One who brought us out of Egypt; we’re the ones who have kept Shabbat for generations; You’re the one who gave us back our souls this morning, who spoke and the world was renewed; we’re the ones committed to making Your name more evident in this world; “…I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing You.”
Life-cycle events follow their own sets of stages: stages of a relationship leading to a chuppah, stages of pregnancy or adoption leading to a baby naming, stages of a life leading to a funeral. Most common in our worship services are bnei mitzvah celebrations, each resulting from a many-stage journey.
Sometimes our services mention the stages leading to a life-cycle event, especially a bar or bat mitzvah. In addition, the custom in some congregations, like Temple Micah, is to physically pass the Torah scroll from grandparents to parents to bar/bat mitzvah, noting how the scroll is the embodiment of the people’s history with God. Whether explicitly recited or not, the worship service puts the stages — years of maturing, event logistics, spiritual preparation, communal history — into the larger community’s sacred struggle.
Wrapping the stages of each generations’ life-cycle events together with the 42 stages of the desert years can be viewed as the flip-side of the “bank account” metaphor for the Amidah’s first blessing. We don’t just call on our ancestors’ deposits; we’re actively enriching our collective inheritance.
And to extend the metaphor (perilously close the breaking point, perhaps), bnei mitzvah celebrations — which play such a large role in the regular worship of so many Jewish communities — might be understood as a particular form of cosmic banking: By bringing an important, liminal moment to the community, the young adult makes a precious offering to the communal account and establishes an enduring connection with it.
The community contributes to and benefits from every such transaction. And the bnei mitzvah and their families — who will undoubtedly face many challenges, together and apart, in teen years and beyond — achieve a new avenue of access:
Here we slept, here we were chilled, here you had a headache.
In that small cafe; the park across the way…the wishin’ well.
God of Abraham, God of Isaac… God of Leah.
Blessed are You, who brings redemption to their children’s children for the sake of the Divine Name
* See Source Materials for full citations and more details.
For the convenience of subscribers, here are more Masei and/or Mattot related notes:
A few years ago [as in a few years earlier than 2009], I prepared a 42-part commentary reflecting the centuries-long Jewish journey with the text as well as the desert stages themselves. UPDATE July 21, 2019: The 2-1/2 pages plus source notes, originally prepared for DC Beit Midrash are posted here now in PDF: Masei 5763. Here, for the record, is information on DC Beit Midrash.
Another source from Ahad Ha-Am