You Didn’t Have to Be There: Prayer, Sinai and the Grateful Dead

There’s a great scene in a fairly silly movie, called Must Love Dogs: The struggling divorced man played by John Cusack is obsessed with the movie Doctor Zhivago. He watches it over and over at home and then drags the young woman he is dating to a revival house to see it. Leaving the theater, the dating couple runs into the romantic lead, played by Diane Lane, who declares that she too loves Doctor Zhivago. She watches it over and over again hoping, she says, “that once Lara and Yuri will get together again…in the springtime preferably. And wear shorts.” The young date responds, “OK, but they can’t because it’s just a movie.”

Of course, Diane Lane and John Cusack do get together, even though things still don’t look so good for Yuri and Lara. And I believe the Must Love Dogs view of Doctor Zhivago has a lot to say about this week’s Torah portion Mattot (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and about our prayers.

Just this Once!

A happy ending for Moses?

This week’s reading confirms that Moses will die without entering the Promised Land. But we don’t approach this text thinking, “Yes, this will be the year God relents and lets Moses enter the Land after all.” And even though the story of Moses and Tziporah started out with plenty of action-romance — Moses fights off the local bullies so she and her sisters can water the flocks, when they first meet (Exodus 2:16-22), and then she saves him from the clutches of God in wrath (Exodus 4:24-26) — we’re not really rooting for two of them to ride off into the sunset together. It’s not so much about the individuals involved.

Still, the overall story seemed so promising for a minute there: God was going to bring us out from slavery and into covenanted relationship. But it hasn’t panned out so well, and God tells Moses, “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin” (31:1-2). Meanwhile, Moses tells the Gadites and Rubenites that they are “a breed of sinful men” replacing “[their fathers to add further to the LORD’s wrath against Israel” (32:14), and he chastises all the soldiers for failing to kill women and children among the enemies….A pretty bleak close to what had seemed so promising not so many weeks back.

In terms of Moses’ story, we’ll soon start the Book of Deuteronomy in which he begins the tale again from his perspective. It doesn’t close with a happy ending exactly. But the final verses of Deuteronomy do allow Moses to go out with less ugliness and more poignancy.

And what about us?

A happy ending for us?

Don’t we launch every Passover hoping this year we’ll leave at least some of our slavery behind? Maybe this time we can struggle free of some of what prevents us from being in better relationship with God and with others in our lives. Wasn’t this going to be the year that some of the justice the world so badly needs would become manifest?

And yet here we are in this war- and vengeance-filled portion of Numbers with the prophet Jeremiah scolding us, to boot, in the first of the haftarot of affliction leading up to Tisha B’av….It may not be Doctor Zhivago, but it’s looking pretty dire.

Short of the dawning of the Messianic Age, I don’t think there’s any way out of this sad period in the calendar. Every year we have to realize that — even if we have made good progress in some ways — our promise has not been entirely fulfilled. We just have to struggle through and use these ten weeks before Rosh Hashanah to help us make the best preparation for the new year.

To spur us on, we have that amazing verse of comfort at the close of the haftarah — in which God recalls our “bridal days” — “I accounted to your favor the the devotion of your youth, Your love as a bride–How you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.” (Jeremiah 2:1-3)

At one point in Must Love Dogs, John Cusack’s character, watching his favorite movie yet again, says something about yearning and a “love so real, even after you’re dead it hurts.” Seems to me that’s not too different from the way Jeremiah portrays the relationship between God and the people. And there is the hope that maybe in the year coming up we’ll get back together with God, as in those “bridal days”…maybe in the spring…not sure about the shorts.

Claiming Sinai

Rabbi Shawn Zevit writes in Making Prayer Real (p.144):

It’s like [Bob] Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” — one of my favorites from Woodstock. Well, I wasn’t at Woodstock and I’ve never been in a hangman’s noose waiting for the trap door to fall out, so I can’t sing that song? No, we just jump in because it touches us. So part of Jewish prayer is allowing ourselves to say, “These are the words of my people, and I’m connecting to them.” People who weren’t at Woodstock claim it as their music, their generation, as if they were there. I can sing the words of my ancestors and claim Sinai.

I’ve never been in a hangman’s noose, either. I wasn’t at Woodstock. And I’ve never seen Dylan live. But I have seen the Grateful Dead perform “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and sung along, sometimes cried. And I know there are thousands of people — who, I can say with some certainty, have never been on the moon, maybe never attended a Grateful Dead concert — singing and crying along on YouTube to the band’s “Standing on the Moon”:

Standing on the moon
Where talk is cheap and vision true
Standing on the moon
But I would rather be with you
Somewhere in San Francisco
on a back porch in July
Just looking up at heaven
At this crescent in the sky

Standing on the moon
with nothing left to do
A lovely view of heaven
but I’d rather be with you–
be with you
–words by Robert Hunter
–music by Jerry Garcia
–First performed 2/5/89, see also the Annotated Grateful Dead

Even if you’re not a Dead fan, take a quick look at the close of this piece and be sure to read drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s lips as the final verse is repeated (around 7:35).

That Back Porch in July

For some of us, part of Standing on the Moon’s resonance is its back story: Jerry Garcia had been in a diabetic coma in 1986 for so long that it was assumed he wouldn’t make it back; but he regained consciousness and then wrote this song. You don’t have to know the footnotes or have a personal nostalgia for San Francisco to relate to the song, however. We can all recognize the “back porch in July” and the plaintive “I’d rather be with you” from our own lives.

And that yearning — for a past and a deeper present — brings us back to Shawn Zevit’s comment above about the prayer book and claiming Sinai.

Think about all the times in the prayer book when we offer a backward-looking prayer to God:

  • “Return us to You as in days of old. [Hashkiveinu.…].
  • “Remember when we sang this song at the Sea of Reeds?”
  • “In the beginning, even then, a new light was sown…”
  • Remember, God, You knew my people from way back — Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, the whole mishpachah. We have history…
  • We’ve been doing this Shabbat thing a long time.
  • Blessed are You, God, who sanctifies Shabbat…
  • …who commands us to gather and read the Torah,
  • …who helped our ancestors,
  • …who has always been our strength

At the lowest moment in the calendar — and at low moments in our own lives — we repeat Jeremiah’s verses in which God remembers those “bridal days.” We recall the back porch in July and hope God does too.

Rather Be With You

Part of claiming Sinai, as I see it, is claiming the never-quite-right, yearning-for-older-better-times nature of our existence. But it’s not an entirely backward-looking message. We recall the back porch in the hope of getting the relationship back on track.

  • Blessed are You, God, who accepts our prayers.
  • Who returns in mercy to Zion.
  • Who teaches us Torah.
  • Who brings us into Your service.

Fellow Yehuda Amichai students know I’m obsessed with Psalm 115 which ends

The heavens belong to the LORD
but the earth he gave over to earthlings.
The dead cannot praise the LORD
nor any who go down into silence.
But we will bless the LORD
now and forever.

The message of our prayers is not that we wish we were in a better time to come, individually, with God — as in heaven after death — although our prayers are filled, too, with the forward longing for the dawning of a better age for everyone. And the message is never that things are so bleak — however hot and dark it may seem, here in portion Mattot, with Tisha B’av looming, in the heat in DC — that it’s hopeless. The message of Jeremiah and our prayers, for me, is that God somehow values the yearning with us.

Maybe we could be standing on the moon, with its lovely view of heaven, but we’d rather be on the back porch looking up. And maybe Lara and Yuri will get together one last time, somehow. But it’s really the yearning we recognize. And that’s a powerful way into prayer.

–this post is adapted from dvar Torah given at Temple Micah on 7/25/11.

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

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