Monday, November 17, 2008

Modah ani lefanecha...

Last summer, I took a short course with Rabbi Amy Kalmanofsky about sefer Bamidbar, during which we focused on analyzing the book on its own terms instead of in the context of the other books of the chumash. We know that, for the Jewish people, the chumash has a happy ending-- the Israelites eventually get to enter Canaan, conquer the other peoples, and set up their own monarchy before things start going south again. We tend to forget about what life must have been life for the generation of the exodus, the generation that died in the desert. Remember the curse that God gives them? The people say (14:2) they'd rather die in the desert than try to conquer Canaan, and here is God's response (14:28-33) "I will do to you just as you have urged me. In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop... your children, who you said would be carried off-- these I will allow to enter; they shall know the land that you rejected. But your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness, while your children roam the wilderness for forty years, suffering for your faithlessness, until the last of your carcasses is down in the wilderness." (translation from the JPS)
Aggadah #123 emerges from this moment in the Israelite story. It imagines that exactly one-fortieth of that generation died each year on the same night, the night of Tisha B'Av. Rather than a slow attrition that could be attributed to age or illness, these deaths are sudden, predictable, and deliberate, the unmistakable hand of God. What strikes me most about the people's attitude here is their total acceptance of their fate. These people, who struggled with faith in the midst of (arguably) the greatest miracles ever, discover total belief when faced with God's harsh judgment. They are so certain about the imminence of their own deaths that when their punishment is finally over, they conclude that they've miscalculated the date and return to sleep in their graves for another six nights.
Remember, this is the generation of slavery, the generation of Israelites whose formative years were spent in oppression and degradation. For a former slave, the inevitability of death and destruction must be easier to believe in than God's lovingkindness and protection (the attributes so extensively portrayed in other aggadot in these sections). Does this aggadah also point to a generalizable aspect of human psychology? In what situations are we more inclined to believe that the worst will happen than to have faith in the potential for the best? Do we unknowingly reject love and blessing by not believing that it is real or that it will continue? Here's to not following in our ancestors' steps in this regard-- let's allow our beliefs to be shaped by daily (and possibly unremarkable) miracles instead of only being touched by the most dramatic and painful experiences.

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