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.