Since I became a pulpit Rabbi I have rarely posted my sermons. In part this is because with the exception of the High Holidays I don’t write out my sermons word for word, preferring to deliver my sermons with a more conversational tone rather than a monologue. 1 However, given that this was my last Shabbat as Rav of The Stanton St. Shul, I had requests to share my final sermon to the congregation. Even when I do write out sermons in advance, I use my text less as a “published” document and more as a guideline in to ensure my focus. Consequently, the actual sermon I actually deliver occasionally deviates from the text in front of me, not in its essence or point, but in terms of word choices or spur of the moment editorials to include or exclude some material.
I hesitate to call my final sermon a “classic,” but I can say that this is fairly typical of the sermons I would give with its crucial elements being:
- A close read of a text, usually as in this case the Bible, but occasionally a Rabbinic teaching.
- A message or point based off of the text, presented as a “suggestion” or “possibility” and hopefully relevant to the congregation.
- Explicit and/or subtle references to outside works. 2
- Optional: explicit or subtle puns, usually bad.
- Do all of the above in 10-15 minutes.
Without further ado, the working notes from my final sermon at The Stanton Street Shul, with annotations.
Last Thursday the movers came and picked up all 231 cubic feet of my worldly belongings, and once they get put on a boat I can say that my possessions will literally be “fleeting.”
[Pause for groans]
The connections between Parashat Masei and my Farewell Shabbat are obvious. The Torah portion recounts the stages of the Jewish people’s journey through the desert, up until the point where they are on the cusp of entering the land of Israel, claiming their divine inheritance. I could easily parallel my own journey with Benei Yisrael or discuss some of the different stages this shul has undergone in its long and storied history. To some degree I have already done so in my final shiur here, but more importantly as you have all noticed over the past six years, it was never my style to state the obvious or waste your time with trite, banal observations.
Our Torah contains a great deal of information, some of which may seem superfluous or unnecessary. We have genealogies, lists, heads of camps, who gave what sacrifice – details on people or events which have no bearing on our religious lives, to the point where their very inclusion seems to be an anomaly worthy of exposition. You may find midrashim, sermons, or divrei Torah answering the very question – “why do we need to know this?” or to phrase this question more theologically, “why did God think this information was important enough to be included in his Torah?” In the past I’ve used James Kugel’s term “omnisignificance” 3 – the premise that every detail in the Torah, by virtue of its being the word of God, has meaning and significance, there is nothing extra or irrelevant, no matter how trivial it may seem at first glance.
So the obvious question someone could ask regarding this Parasha is why does the Torah bother including a glorified travel diary of the Jewish people? Consider that we know some of the stops on the journey, at least where some of the more important events happened. More importantly, Benei Yisrael knew where they went – and seeing as how there isn’t a whole lot to do when you’re stuck spending 40 years in the desert – it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume at least one person out of 600,000 kept some record or scrapbook.
The question of this parasha’s relevance, and possible redundancy are of course fair, but I’d like to call attention to a linguistic ambiguity in this parasha’s introduction (Num 33:2):
וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֶת מוֹצָאֵיהֶם לְמַסְעֵיהֶם עַל פִּי יְקֹוָק וְאֵלֶּה מַסְעֵיהֶם לְמוֹצָאֵיהֶם
The specific translations will vary, but the gist is that Moses wrote down the stages of Benei Yisrael’s journey, all their encampments and subsequent destinations, and here they are. But right in the middle of this verse we’re told “al pi Hashem” – by the command of God. What was done by the command of God? On possible read of the verse, is that it was the “motzaeihem l’ma’aseihem” – the encampments and stages which were done at God’s command. Some commentators take this approach, Hizkuni even references Beha’alotcha Numbers Chapter 9, 20 and/or 23 that it was “al pi Hashem” by God’s command that we rested and we traveled. Based on this reading of the verse, the Divine Will to rest and travel from each of these encampments could be significant enough to warrant mentioning for all eternity, though to be sure, you will still find interpretations infusing this passage with additional spiritual meaning, to further justify its inclusion.
However, there is another plausible referent of “al pi Hashem” in that it does not modify the stages of the journey, but rather Moses’ action of “vayichtov” – meaning in context that Moses received specific Divine instruction to record the travels of the Jewish people. 4 While this reading is grammatically plausible it does open up other questions. After all, if the entire Torah is presumed to have been written by Moses by God’s command, why would this particular passage be singled out? There are actually two parts to this question: 1. That God specifically told Moses to write all this down and 2. That God would even bother including the specific instruction to Moses – that God felt it necessary to specifically include “al pi Hashem” – for the subsequent passage. This would imply that the travels of the Jewish people are not only relevant, but somehow of “extra” importance.
I’d like to offer a suggestion based simply on the very nature of the encampments – that is here are places where you stopped for a while and then moved on. According to Newton’s first Law of Motion, “Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it,” colloquially known as “an object in motion tends to stay in motion, an object at rest tends to stay at rest.” But which is more significant – the moments of motion or the moments of rest? When you’re undertaking a long journey, or trying to achieve a goal in the distant future, the motion is what is important as it takes you closer to your desired outcome, and the moments of rest are only necessary respites one takes in order to proceed further. On the other hand, when you’ve reached your goal the desire is to “settle down,” – when those moments of rest are the ideal and subsequent movement or displacement becomes an uncomfortable burden or distraction.
The reality of course is that whether or not we see these states as being “good” or “bad” as much as they are “real.” We all have moments of motion and we all have moments of rest, each state coming to an end with the arrival of the other – and that no matter what state we are in, there is always the possibility or perhaps the inevitability of it coming to an end.
Our perceptions of endings are usually conditioned in the binary of “good” and “bad” such that when something “bad” ends we consider it “good” and vice-versa. 5 On the other hand, we learn in Kohelet (7:8) טוֹב אַחֲרִית דָּבָר מֵרֵאשִׁיתו ֹ- the end is better than the beginning, without qualification. Then again, Kohelet was not the most optimistic individual.
In a 2008 article in the journal Psychological Science titled “Looking to the Future to Appreciate the Present: The Benefits of Perceived Temporal Scarcity” 6 Jaime L. Kurtz found that keeping an Ending in mind had a fascinating effect on college students. I quote the abstract:
Both psychological research and conventional wisdom suggest that it can be difficult to attend to and derive enjoyment from the pleasant things in life. The present study examined whether focusing on the imminent ending of a positive life experience can lead to increased enjoyment. A temporal distance manipulation was used to make college graduation seem more or less close at hand. Twice a week over the course of 2 weeks, college students were told to write about their college life, with graduation being framed as either very close or very far off. As predicted, thinking about graduation as being close led to a significant increase in college-related behaviors and subjective well-being over the course of the study. The present research provides support for the counterintuitive hypothesis that thinking about an experience’s ending can enhance one’s present enjoyment of it.
According to Kurtz it is not the ending which is good or bad, and not even our perception of it. Rather, it is the recognition of imminent endings which give us a certain freedom to appreciate what we have and not worry about lost opportunities. The more we assume our current stage is permanent, the more we take things for granted, and the more upset we become when the status quo chances.
I’d like to suggest that perhaps this is why it is so important for the Torah to summarize the travels in the desert, and specifically to do so right as the Jewish people are about to enter the land of Israel. One could view their current stage as the culmination of a long journey, or perhaps the beginning of a new one – the conquest of the land. Even the conquest of the land is not an “ending” because the Jewish people would have to be worthy of staying there, which as we know from the rest of Tanacch isn’t quite a given. Furthermore, the destiny of the Jewish people is not up to one generation – the parasha, and indeed all of Sefer Bamidbar – concludes with laws of inheritance, which are indicative of the ending of one life but the continuation of a family line.
Life does not simply follow a clear path or straight line, but it is broken up by moments of starting and stopping. Sometimes we’re forced to be in motion when we’d like to be at rest, or we seem to be stagnating when we’d like to be progressing. Our lives are neither permanent nor do they follow a linear path. It’s possible the Torah specifically tells us of the travels in the desert to remind us that we all play our many parts, each with our own entrances and exits. For after all, from the perspective of our own individual journeys, all the world is indeed just a stage. 7
- Although I was trained to give very formal sermons, I realized early on that not only did that style take substantially more time to prepare, but the extra effort would not have mattered to the congregation. I found the conversational style worked best in my synagogue to communicate ideas, and it allowed the freedom to adlib and respond to hecklers. For the High Holidays when I had to focus my mental energies on managing the service as well as meeting higher expectations, writing out the entire sermon was essential. ↩
- I also don’t title my sermons, but if I had to for this one, I’d have used this one, taken from the series finale of ST:TNG. ↩
- See Kugel’s The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History p. 103-104. ↩
- This read is supported by other examples in this Torah reading such as Num. 33:38 and 36:5 where “al pi Hashem” refers to the verb which begins the sentence. ↩
- I’ve often referred to the theme of oversimplifying “good” vs. “bad,” frequently citing Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim 1:2. On one occasion I spontaneously recited Homer Simpson’s entire exchange with the frogrut guy. From memory. Verbatim. ↩
- Psychological Science December 2008 vol. 19 no. 12 1238-1241 and a nice summary over at PsyBlog. ↩
- Reference to the famous monologue from As You Like It Scene II Act VII, though I’m not sure if anyone got the reference or appreciated the pun on “stage.” My rule with the subtle references and jokes is that the sermon must make sense even if people don’t get it, but those who do can still appreciate a “bonus.” ↩