Flags, Horns, and Walls

This week’s Torah reading closes the Book of Numbers, leaving the People — who have journeyed for 40 years, losing many people in the process and raising new generations — poised to cross the Jordan. The narrative includes a 42-stage recitation of journeys: “These are the stages of the children of Israel…” (Numbers 33:1-49). Each of the stages is reported as follows: “…and they journeyed FROM [old place]….and they camped [new place].”

One lesson of the reading seems to be the importance of noting every stage on the way. And the repetition of “journeyed from” — forty-two times! — hammers home the idea that you have to leave one place to get to a new one. But events of recent weeks in the nation, as well as some travel of my own, suggest that recognizing where we are is no simple matter.

Flags

In South Carolina a few days ago, the Confederate flag was removed from the State House. (See, e.g., Al Jazeera.) Observers reportedly chanted “USA! USA!” as well as “nah nah nah nah…goodbye,” and the removal was heralded by many as a victory over hate and divisiveness. In addition, other instances of the same flag, in stained-glass windows at the Washington National Cathedral, for example, also face possible removal.

from Al Jazeera

from Al Jazeera

However, there are some who mourn the loss of what they consider a “heritage symbol.”

Still others argue that the US flag, Mount Rushmore, the faces on our currency, and a variety of other national symbols and observances need to go as well. (See, e.g., Black Agenda Report.)

So, if we had to name this stage in our country’s history, what would it be?
Where are we leaving?
Where are we headed?
Are we making a collective journey at all, if we don’t share a starting point?

Horns

Stained-glass window at Kenyon College's Church of the Holy Spirit

Stained-glass window at Kenyon College’s Church of the Holy Spirit

Meanwhile, I am visiting Kenyon College in Gambier, OH, this week, where this image of Moses (right) holds a prominent place in the campus Church of the Holy Spirit.

The horns are based, most scholars think, on a mistranslation of the word קָרַן — as “keren” [“grew horns”] rather than “karan” [“sent forth beams (of light)”] in Exodus 34. They appear most famously on sculptures of Moses by Michelangelo and Donatello (both centuries before the window design).

51GOZ58pcKL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The horns were a “widespread medieval negative image of the Jew,” according to My Jewish Learning, and “led to the widespread notion that all Jews had devilish horns.” Moreover:

Der Sturmer cover 1932

Der Sturmer cover 1932


The Nazis seized upon the negative Jewish body image and used caricatures and other forms of propaganda to present the Jews as sub-human or as disfigured humans. The Nazi weekly Der Sturmer was famous for disseminating these images. (See right, e.g.; more here).

[Additional, more recent (2013) example.]

In a 1997 history of the church, Perry Lentz says, “in the left-most first window a Moses with a distractingly muscular forearm is bringing the ten commandments.”

A video, used in promoting the “Beyond Walls” program that brought me to Kenyon this week, pans the church windows at a distance too great to discern content, while a young spokesperson declares: “When Kenyon was founded, we were Episcopalian, but now we’re completely non-denominational.”


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Seeing You in 42 Familiar Places (Mattot-Masei Prayer Links)

“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.
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Masei: Great Source

So the Prophet remains in the wilderness, buries his own generation, and trains up a new one. Year after year passes, and he never grows weary of repeating to this growing generation the laws of righteousness that must guide its life in the land of its future; never tires of recalling the glorious past in which these laws were fashioned. The past and the future are the Prophet’s whole life, each completing the other. In the present he sees nothing but a wilderness, a life far removed from his ideal; and therefore he looks before and after. He lives in the future world of his vision and seeks strength in the past out of which that vision-world is quarried.
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