Home > D'vrei Torah > “38 Years Later…” D’var Torah for parashat Chukat/Balak, 7-8-06

“38 Years Later…” D’var Torah for parashat Chukat/Balak, 7-8-06

The Rabbi at Shir Chadash traditionally goes on vacation during the month of July, so it is up to congregants to conduct the services and deliver the divrei torah during the month. In this one, I discuss the 38-year gap in the torah.

“38 Years Later… “

Cast AwayHave you seen the movie Cast Away? It stars Tom Hanks as a FedEx executive who crash lands on a desert island and becomes, well, a castaway. The movie chronicles the harrowing crash landing, then everything that Hanks’ character must do to survive on the island. Getting food, making fire, doing self-administered dental surgery, and creatively using the supplies in the FedEx boxes to help him get through each day. The scenes are beautifully shot, and often done without music or dialogue—at one point, there’s a 20 minute stretch without dialogue. About two-thirds of the way through the movie it switches gears, and all of a sudden the words “Four Years Later” appear on the screen. Four years have passed, Hanks’ character has a very long beard and is much skinnier, and the movie progresses with the third act and Hanks’ character’s quest to get off the island. The audience is left to wonder, all of a sudden it’s four years later, just what happened during those four years? But, the movie goes on with the last part of the story leaving it to our imagination to fill in the blanks.

That’s what happens in the torah portion this week. Over the last several months, we’ve been following the people of Israel’s trek through the desert and learning what it took for them to survive. We’ve learned how they got food and water, the revelation at Sinai, the building of the temple, the march through the desert, and last week we learned about Korach and his rebellion. This week, the parsha starts off with a break in the narrative to explain the story of the Parah Adumah—the red heifer—and the elaborate ritual in which the big red cow is used in purification. Then we get to Chapter 20 of the Book of Numbers, and all of a sudden, just like that it’s 38 years later. The narrative jumps to the 40th year after the Exodus to discuss the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, and the remainder of the people of Israel’s journey through the desert. There’s a 38 year gap that’s left to us to fill in the blanks.

What happened during the missing 38 years? We don’t know, and we probably have to wait for the expanded unabridged Torah or DVD with special bonus features to find out. The long gap in the narrative has been justified by saying it just wasn’t important anymore to learn what the generation that came out of Egypt had been doing. They had been sentenced to die in the wilderness because of their lack of faith in G-d. They were old news—not important to the storyline anymore. It was time to focus on the younger characters—to ensure that the new generation that was able to enter Israel would have the knowledge and abilities to be able to do so. As an aside, in case it comes up in a trivia question, the only two people from the older generation who were allowed to enter the Promised Land were Joshua and Caleb, for they were the only two that had complete faith in G-d when everybody else was afraid that they wouldn’t be able to conquer the land.

So what can we imagine happening during the missing years? It was up to the older generation to prepare the younger generation to enter the Promised Land. There were around 603,000 people according to the census—they needed to teach what they learned at Sinai. They had been sentenced to die in the wilderness because of their lack of faith in G-d. Perhaps they learned the error of their ways and realized that even though they could no longer save themselves, they could be able to make life easier for their children. They needed to tell their children about the power of G-d and of the importance of mitzvot. It was incumbent on them to share their stories about life in Egypt—life under Pharoah, life in slavery. Can you imagine sitting around the campfire eating manna, “Dad, tell us the story again about how you built the pyramids!” But that’s what they did. They had to teach the rituals and traditions which probably shouldn’t even be called traditions yet because they were so new at that point. “Family, we gather around this table tonight to celebrate Passover—a holiday that goes back 12 years.”


My Trophy Collection (from 30 years ago)

How do we do it now? What is the legacy that we leave to our children? If you were to come up with an archive that you want your children to hold onto, what would it be? Jennifer and I were recently going through the Samuels Family Archive at my parents’ house. We came across my old report cards, journals, pictures, and the true treasure—my collection of basketball trophies. I bet you didn’t realize that I was a star basketball player. But I got three trophies from my days of Biddy Basketball at the JCC, including the 1980 championship team. Remarkably, I got all of these trophies despite only having touched the ball one time in three years. I played goalie. I couldn’t run much because of my asthma, so my job was to stand at the other goal just in case there was a breakaway. We found sweaters that my grandmother had knitted. We have to save those for some reason, despite the fact that they have been eaten by moths and were very itchy to begin with.

William Samuels, circa 1953

My grandfather, William Samuels, from November, 1953

But we also found old family pictures of great and great-great grandparents. My grandmothers’ school diplomas. My grandfather’s Bar Mitzvah certificate. A story that my great-grandmother wrote for Readers’ Digest—her life story detailing about she was secretly adopted and raised by her aunt and of her quest to find her lost family in Russia. Family heirlooms that we can’t get rid of—and even though they’ll be put in a box and put up in the attic, it’s family history that we just can’t throw away. For we can learn so much from those who have come before us.

Inside my old bedroom in my parents’ house lies my doubloon collection and comic book collection and every letter and card that I’ve ever received in my life (not to mention every Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation card, and I still treasure the belt sets and Cross Pens that you all gave to me twenty-four years ago). But somewhere inside the house lies a microcassette containing an interview that I did with my grandmother of blessed memory. I was maybe 10 or 11 at the time, but this cassette is of her telling her story of growing up in Russia and coming to America. The stories of life in the old country that give us a new appreciation of how she grew up Jewishly. Of rituals and traditions that have been passed on through the ages. How important is it to make an archive? To interview your parents and grandparents about their lives growing up—to make a visual and audio record that may just end up in a box somewhere, but you never know how appreciative you will be to have it after they’re gone.

A growing trend as of late is to create an Ethical Will—different from a Last Will & Testament, an Ethical Will is a way to share your values and beliefs, your life’s lessons, and your hopes and dreams for the future. It’s a way for others to learn from you in the hopes that your thoughts and values will be an inspiration to others. Ethicalwill.com (yes there is such a website) calls an Ethical Will “a love letter to your family.” The concept actually goes back 3000 years ago as Jacob lay on his deathbed. He called his sons together to address each of them individually. To talk about each son’s special character and gifts- to transmit his values on each of them so that they can be better human beings.

An Ethical Will is a meaningful and cherished gift for your loved ones– hopes and prayers that will help get them through life.  My father wrote one. In it, he discusses his beliefs and love of Judaism and the hope for the transmission of truth through the study of Torah and Talmud. He conveys his hopes for us all to understand why being Jewish is so important not only for each of individually, but for all mankind.

But your family archive is much more than just tangible things like pictures, videos, diplomas, and basketball trophies. It’s the intangible things that go so far. The rituals and the family traditions that go back for generations that you do in the home can leave lasting memories for your children and can do so much to shape their Jewish identities. The most basic of Jewish rituals can go so far. Lighting candles on Shabbat and holidays. Saying Kiddush on a Friday night. Performing Havdalah on Saturday night. Searching for Chamets the night before Passover using a candle, a feather, and a wooden spoon. Kapparot—swinging a live rooster over your head three times the day before Yom Kippur then slaughtering it… well, okay maybe not that particular ritual, but there are others that are important. Start early with your family and teach your children by example about the special gifts that Judaism offers us all of the days of our lives.

Food—I dare say there is no greater tradition to be passed down then the special recipes of our people. Nobody could make French toast like my grandmother, and I can still remember the smell of her kitchen in Cape Girardeau. I would give anything for a piece of Patti’s Butterscotch Coffee Cake, and I’m hoping that she passed on her secret recipe to someone before she died. A family challah recipe. Homemade gefilte fish—does anyone ever make that anymore or does everybody just use the jars? I sound like Seinfeld– “And what is the deal with the jelly?”  Family recipes—Shabbat and holiday favorite foods. These are the easy Jewish traditions that can be passed down for generations.

Although we don’t know what happened during the missing 38 years in the desert, we hope that the next generation of the people of Israel entered the Promised Land with the hopes and dreams of their ancestors who died out along the way. We assume that the generation who left Egypt realized the importance of teaching their children, and so the young people geared up for the final act of their journey with a renewed spirit and the inspiration from their parents to love G-d and follow his mitzvot. To learn from those who were at Sinai how important it is to be Jewish and how important it is to pass on the rituals and traditions that they’ve learned. “V’shinantam l’vanecha b’edibarta bam—and you shall teach them diligently to your children.” May we live all of our days learning, experiencing, and teaching our rituals and traditions with the love and inspiration of those who have come before us. Amen.

Will Samuels,
Presented at Shir Chadash, Metairie, LA 7/8/06

Categories: D'vrei Torah
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