Matot/Masei: Hope, Gratitude & Passing the Torch

Last Sunday I was up until about 2 a.m. watching videos from the 2022 Newport Folk Festival. Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon had both made surprise appearances over the weekend and the videos were all over Facebook and YouTube. If you’re of a certain age, as I am, this was the music of your youth. I was 10 when Simon & Garfunkel broke up, and I remember buying Joni’s “Court & Spark” at Sam Goody during one of the many afternoons I spent at the mall in junior high. I still have the album.

It was joyful to watch these videos. Paul Simon is 80. Joni Mitchell is 78 and suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015 that nearly killed her. She had to relearn how to walk and talk. Yet there she was onstage in Newport on Sunday, miraculously singing and playing the guitar. (She said she practiced the latter skill by watching her old YouTube videos.)

A jazz artist I know said that she was crying after seeing Joni Mitchell, but likely not for the right reasons. I understood what she meant. The vocals were at times halting, though Joni seemed to gain confidence and strength as she moved deeper into the set. (Gershwin’s “Summertime” in particular was breathtaking.) There was magic on display, but it was not the same magic you remembered. Musicians like Brandi Carlile and Rhiannon Giddens accompanied both artists onstage, and while their admiration and respect were evident, you couldn’t overlook the distinct feeling that a torch was being passed to the next generation right in front of your eyes.

It was with this twinge of melancholy that I re-read this week’s double Torah portion: Matot (which means tribes) and Masei (travels). These are the last two parshas in the Book of Numbers, and a lot happens. There’s talk about oaths, and battling the Midianites, and Reuven and Gad’s request to settle outside the Land of Israel. There’s a lengthy section about homicide and the penalty for homicide. Zelophehad’s daughters finally get their inheritance. Aaron dies at age 123. And we hear an accounting of everywhere the Israelites have been up to this point in the story.

The conclusion of Numbers marks the end of the forward motion in the Torah. The next step is freedom. In Deuteronomy, Moses will re-tell the Israelites their own history (with some key details changed), and instructing them on how to govern themselves and properly use the gift of freedom that God has entrusted to them. Matot/Masei represents the last time that Moses is an active leader rather than a keeper of (selective) memory.

We know that change is coming, and change can be painful. Moses can only look across the Jordan at the promised land; God forbade him from entering it. Joshua has already been chosen to succeed Moses. Moses and Aaron have reached the end of their useful life as leaders. Once again, the torch is being passed to the next generation. This transition may be regarded as bittersweet, but also necessary and even critical. It is a long-held expectation for new leadership to innovate, preserve and/or eliminate the traditions of the previous generation.

Well, up to a point.

From our current perspective, the population of Baby Boomers is so huge that its impact is impossible to ignore. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) are the second-largest population group in 2022, comprising 69.6 million individuals. (The only demographic that’s larger, and not by much, are the millennials.) Thanks to advances in medical care and some genetic good luck, people much older than Boomers are still shaking things up in a multitude of ways.

The other day The New York Times published an op-ed by Norman Lear, the TV producer, on his 100th birthday. “Reaching this birthday with my health and wits mostly intact is a privilege. Approaching it with loving family, friends and creative collaborators to share my days has filled me with a gratitude I can hardly express,” Lear wrote. “This is our century, dear reader, yours and mine. Let us encourage one another with visions of a shared future. And let us bring all the grit and openheartedness and creative spirit we can muster to gather together and build that future.”

There’s such hope here. And determination. And gratitude for the chance to keep contributing.

Even though Moses will never see his people experience freedom, his work continues. He has value and he is respected as a leader. Which is as it should be. What a blessing it is that the Israelites have the opportunity to experience the full arc of Moses’ life, and to see the grace that comes with Moses knowing that his role is changing from one of leader to legacy builder.

By the end of Numbers, the Israelites are learning a whole new set of lessons from Moses. Yes, they are still learning how to govern. But they are also observing how Moses perseveres despite grievous (some would say unjust) disappointment, despite the various challenges that come with aging, despite the world changing and moving ahead around him. The art of persevering is something that the Israelites will desperately need to rely on as they work toward building their future as a free people.

May we all move forward with grace and determination, and may we remember the value we have and the gifts we bring to the people around us. Let us have the strength to persevere, to embrace life, and to seek happiness no matter what our circumstances happen to be.

Have a great week, and Shabbat Shalom.

B’ShERT’s Cantorial Soloist, Nonie Donato, provided a nod to Joni Mitchell with this anthem. Here is Joni’s version from her appearance last weekend in Newport. I dare you not to cry.

Pinchas: Hear Us Roar

The other day I saw a photo of Meghan Markle, the American-born Duchess of Sussex, and Gloria Steinem, the 88-year-old writer and feminist icon, after they had lunch together in Manhattan. The two have been working together in the wake of the Roe v Wade debacle to try to get the Equal Rights Amendment finally ratified.

After I saw this, I promptly submerged myself in a Gloria Steinem rabbit hole — easy to do when I’m front of my computer — and unearthed an article she wrote that I hadn’t seen in many years. It was a two-part, diary-style account published in May and June 1963 for an arts magazine called Show. The title of the article was “A Bunny’s Tale.” (The first installment ran with the billing, “Show‘s first expose for intelligent people.”)

At the time, Steinem was a young journalist in New York City, and she set out to expose what it was really like to work as a cocktail waitress — better known as a Playboy bunny — at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club at 5 East 59th Street. In addition to writing about the many indignities that one would be subjected to when clad in a skimpy leotard with a bunny tail and stiletto heels (minimum three inches required), she also uncovered some eyebrow-raising business practices at The Playboy Club. For instance, she learned that all newly-hired bunnies were forced to undergo a gynecological exam and blood testing for venereal diseases, which was not required for any other waitress job in New York State.

After her article was published, The Playboy Club quietly ended these practices. Interestingly, for many years Steinem said she regretted writing this piece because she ended up objectifying herself in the process. Later she changed her mind and said she was glad she wrote it. I was always struck by Steinem’s willingness to chase a story that made her vulnerable to the very same sexist tropes that she was working to eradicate.

So, you may ask, what does this have to do with this week’s Torah portion? Well, powerful women are the stars this week. Parashat Pinchas includes the story of the daughters of Zelophehad, who, as you probably know, argued for a woman’s right to inherit land when there were no sons in the family. By way of brief background, in Numbers 26 there had been a census taken of all males over the age of 20, and God instructed Moses to apportion the land to those listed in the census. Since they were women, and therefore unaccounted for in the census, Zelophehad’s daughters were not eligible for their portion of land.

Given these circumstances, it would have been perfectly reasonable to assume that the daughters would stay silent. This was the law, and it was not to be questioned. Instead, they decided to take an unorthodox, unheard-of and rather bold course of action. They decided to fight for their inheritance.

The daughters left their tent and went to the Tabernacle, which was a place where women did not congregate. Without being summoned to do so, they put themselves right in front of the men who were in authority — Moses, Eleazer the priest, and the chieftains — and they made a logical, well-thought-out case for themselves. They told the male leaders that while their father Zelophehad was part of the generation that was doomed to die in the wilderness, he was not, in fact, one of Korach’s men who banded together against God. They went on to explain that the law, in their view, was inadequate and that their father’s name (which was tied directly into land inheritance) shouldn’t be lost simply because he had no sons.

After Moses finished listening to them, he admitted that he didn’t know how the matter should be handled, so he brought it to God to decide. God happened to agree with Zelophehad’s daughters. This approval initiates one of just a handful of times where we witness the process of Torah law being changed. And it’s the only one, not surprisingly, set in motion by women.

These five daughters of Zelophehad — Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah — saw a situation that they believed needed to be addressed, and they addressed it. They did so at enormous personal risk — they didn’t know the reaction they’d get from Moses and the rest of the male leadership. They didn’t know if there would be repercussions from God; it certainly wouldn’t have been the first time humans experienced the weight of God’s wrath. The daughters must have been afraid or at least apprehensive. Who wouldn’t be?

But in this case, they couldn’t NOT speak up. The matter at hand was critical, and it was one that affected not just their family but countless other women in future generations. They decided to set their own fear aside and use their wits and their voices to effect change.

I was making notes for this d’var last night while watching Liz Cheney, the lone Congress member from Wyoming, deliver her closing remarks at the January 6th hearings. “We must remember that we cannot abandon the truth and remain a free nation,” Cheney said. How amazing was that? Here’s someone who has quite possibly sacrificed her own career because she’d rather see our democracy survive. Her own well-being is clearly less important to her than the need to speak out and protect our nation, its legacy, and its place on the global stage. You can love Liz Cheney or you can find her politics abhorrent. Either way, you have to admire her dedication to justice.

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is the perfect story for right now, in 2022, when there are so many urgent issues demanding our attention and action. Gun violence. Reproductive rights. Climate change. We need strong voices to speak truth to power, to use logic and reason, to not be deterred by opposition or failure, to not be intimidated by voices that may be even louder than our own. Gloria Steinem has been on the front lines of the battle for equality for over 60 years — her persistence is worth emulating. Do what is right rather than what is easy. And don’t stop.

May we all dedicate ourselves to using our voices to make a difference in whatever capacity we’re able. May we all find some common ground with those with whom we disagree, strength from those who share our views, and the courage to articulate ideas and solutions that may yet be untested.  

Have a safe and healthy week, stay cool in the heat wave, and Shabbat Shalom.

Our cantorial soloist, Nonie Schuster Donato, followed up the sermon with an anthem that summed up perfectly womankind’s ongoing battle to be heard and acknowledged. You can watch Helen Reddy’s original here.