I imagine that for most of us, there is no story we have heard as many times as that of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, their forty years of desert wandering, and subsequent entrance into the Promised Land. Each spring, we devote an entire evening around our dinner tables to retelling this story. And yet, we mostly do so in broad strokes. Rarely do we stop to consider what the Israelites ate throughout those four decades, what it was like to give birth and to rear children as homeless nomads, and (as mentioned in this evening’s Torah reading, Deut. 29:4) where they went shopping for new clothes:
“I led you through the wilderness forty years; the clothes on your back did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet.”
As far as this last question, the Torah tells us they didn’t. For the duration of their trip – all forty years of it – neither their clothes nor their shoes ever wore out. They must have had dramatically different manufacturing standards back then because I sure can’t get a shirt to stay free of pilling to save my life.
I doubt, of course, that we were meant to take this literally. That the Israelites were able to make the journey at all, that they managed to get out of Egypt, that they survived as a community during that period post-enslavement and pre-Holy Land, is even more miraculous than a well-preserved pair of chinos.
But it got me thinking about time, and about what changes, what wears down, or doesn’t wear down.
Forty years is a very human chunk of time. For a kid, it’s forever. For a forty-year old, it’s a recognition that time has passed but life is chock-full of promise and achievement. For a sixty-year old, it’s a mixed blessing. I’m fifty-seven. I find myself thinking about “forty years ago” quite a bit. I think about what my body could do forty years ago. I think about where my life’s adventures were unfolding forty years ago. And I think about where, forty years ago, I thought I’d be today. And where I thought the world would be today.
Truth is, we do wear out. Used to be my doctor hardly knew me. Now we finish each other’s jokes.
The other truth is, the world wears out too. Forty years ago, 1974, some of the big music hits included “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby,” Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died,” and Maria Muldaur’s “Midnight at the Oasis.” Chinatown, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles were playing on the silver screen. And in the news, India had gotten the bomb, Patty Hearst was kidnapped, first-class postage went up to a dime, Ed Sullivan died, and Richard Nixon resigned.
More importantly, we’re still fighting wars, still struggling with racism and, more than most of us could ever have imagined, we’re confronting more and worse terrorism than the world has ever known.
Thirteen years ago, hijacked commercial airliners brought down the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon. Some 3000 human beings perished In New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on that day. And more in the years following, from illnesses contracted through contact with toxic materials, affecting not only survivors but responders as well.
America was, of course, deeply affected by the events of that day. Our economy was thrashed. Our airport security underwent a sea-change. And our insecurity about Muslims among us rose precipitously. Whether this is a momentary period of difficulty and challenge, or our world has been changed forever, who can tell? For right now, at least, terrorism seems far more possible to upend our lives than war.
Just about the only good that came out of 9/11 was America’s increased sympathy, now empathy, for Israel. Despite grumblings about Israel’s possible lack of proportional response this past summer, Americans now understand what it’s like to live under the spectre of having enemies who want you dead and are happy to rain down destruction not on soldiers but on civilians whenever they are able.
Thirteen years is an interesting length of Jewish time. Thirteen, of course, is when our children reach their traditional majority, when they are old enough to step up and fully integrate into their communities and to become full-fledged partners in building Jewish life. 9/11 is thirteen years old. I wonder if it has been fully integrated into our national consciousness, or what that integration would even mean. I think of Gettysburg and how the horror of that grisly battle has receded far into the memory banks of the American people. What we remember about Gettysburg is Abraham Lincoln’s stirring speech. What about Vietnam? Have we integrated that into our American lives? We make movies about it now; is that the indicator?
We think of thirteen-year olds as reaching a certain level of maturity. And we all know some who have and others who have not. Thirteen is kind of an arbitrary number but, for each of our kids, we celebrate then as if to say to them, “Wherever you are in your journey, we applaud what you have achieved thus far and we look forward to your continued growth.” For the American people, I imagine it’s a similar kind of idea. Some Americans still believe there are no decent Muslims in the world. Others of us remain open to building bridges wherever we can.
Our parashah this evening, Kee Tavo, recalls our most famous story, those forty years in which we matured from slave-children into free men and women. Our outer garments may not have changed, but our hearts and our minds most certainly did. On this 13th anniversary of 9/11, may we continue to learn both strength and compassion, so that we may protect all whom we love and, someday we pray, come to love even those from whom we must protect.
The rabbis-of-old taught that, 2000 years ago, when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and people wanted to know where God had been during destruction, and people wanted to know where God was now in their despair and grief, the rabbis told them God was with them — crying with them, mourning with them, and seeking comfort among them.
As we ponder our ancestors’ 40-year journey in the desert, a journey we are told was accompanied by God’s continuous presence, may we never despair. Even when life seems overwhelmed by difficulty, may we ever link arms with one another to insure that goodness never dies, may we be forever confident that God has not abandoned us and that, indeed, it is when we reach for one another that we find God. And in so doing, may we discover, like our desert forebears, that when life’s harshness includes persistent determination and love, not our outer garments nor our inner ones will ever wear out.