Student Teaching in the New Millenium

5771 Masei II

In Midrash, Numbers, Torah on July 27, 2011 at 12:28 am
D is for...

Map to teshuva
from the parents to the children
circling, circling

Jeremiah 2:4 – 28, 3:4, 4:1 – 2
Numbers 33:11 – 49

So in the second Aliyah we read the listing of the Israelites’ journey. Rashi teaches that the enumeration shows that the Israelites weren’t driven without rest, there being only twenty journeys in the wilderness in the years between Rismoh (and the spies’ transgression) and Hor. R’Tanchuma compares it to a father recounting their journey to his son, here we slept, here we chilled, here our head ached, and so on. Rambam’s position is the journeys are preserved as a history, because the future Israelites would forget, think that the areas weren’t remote and uninhabitable, or scoff at the whole story.

The trouble with these interpretations is in the white spaces. How do we know how strenuous the journey was or wasn’t? Were some parts less or more so? Need it only be strenuous enough to ensure the spies’ sympathizers passing? How do we know this is a message direct from God to his children, as Jeremiah said last week, Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruits of His harvest (2:2)? How do we know a history is HiStory?

Why mention the history in it’s entirety to demonstrate the Omnipresent’s benevolence (Rashi, Numbers 33:1)? And why mention it here, of all places? Why not keep the record at the point in the text where the events take place, limiting the route to the areas in question? I posit that the history is part of Moses’ final testament before his death.

There’s another curious feature here. The only descriptions offered are at Rephidim, Hor, and Egypt where the story begins. Nothing at the Red Sea. Nothing at Sinai. Nothing about Sihon or Og, Midian or Balaam. The triumphant or high handed leave-taking of Egpyt is the single identified high point, sobered by a reminder of Egypt’s suffering. Is it really a high point? None of Israel’s major “victories” after departing Egypt are mentioned. It’s failures aren’t here either. So we have here a plain and simple retelling of the journeys and isolation Israel endured. What does this mean?

What else is plain, simple, and meant to be endured? A dunce cap. Embarrassing, uncomfortable, isolating, and designed to give children time to think about their actions. Instead of “get in the corner!” we have “get in the wilderness!” Further discussion with the parents seldom occurs during this sentence but afterwards. Jeremiah does this, saying, they never asked themselves, “Where is the Lord”. (2:6)

What does this tell us? If this passage teaches that the journey in the wilderness was a dunce cap, it becomes a life teaching. We are creatures of action. Some things we do are smart. Others are stupid. Our successes empower, our blemishes embarrass. What do we do when we’re embarrassed? Maybe, we’d sneak away for awhile.

This passage also teaches mercy. Do our parents and teachers allow us take off our dunce caps and rejoin society? Does God allow the Israelites to come out of the wilderness and take the land for a possession? With the hope that, as Maimonides says, whatever it is, we don’t do it again (Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Teshuva”, 2:1). We should all treat each other with this dignity.

Final question: Is there a forever dunce cap? Discuss.


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