Parashat Masei: Being here now

Rabbi Hyim Shafner serves Bais Abraham Congregation in University City.

By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

In this week’s Torah portion, Masei, Moses stands on the eastern banks of the Jordan River with Jewish people before they enter the land of Israel.  Moses reviews and writes down all of the stops that the Jewish people had made during their travels in the desert on their 40 year trek from Egypt to the Land of Israel.  

The Midrash, an ancient commentary on the Bible, wonders why Moses must review each oasis in which the Jewish people stopped.  Now they have arrived, why bother going over where they have been?

The Midrash answers this question with a parable.  It is akin to a King who had a son.  The son fell ill and his father, the king, had to take him to a far off hospital to be healed.  On their way back the father reviewed each place they had journeyed saying, “Here we slept, here we were chilled, here your head hurt…”

Why is the King waxing nostalgic about the trip to the far off doctor, reviewing each place as they go home?  Why is he not just happy the son is now cured?    Why review their trip of travail and uncertainty?  What is the function of all of this nostalgia?

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The great Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky wrote, in a poem entitled “Nostalgia for the Present”:

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I feel the cruelest nostalgia — not for the past — but nostalgia for the present.

A novice desires to approach the Lord but is permitted to do so only by her Superior. I beg to be joined, without intermediary to the present.

It’s as if I had done something wrong, Not I even — but others. I fall down in a field and feel nostalgia for the living earth. 

No one can ever tear you away, and yet when I embrace you again I feel overcome by terrible pain as if you were being stolen from me.

When I hear the nasty tirades of a friend who has taken a false step, I don’t look for what he seems to be, I grieve for what he really is. 

A window opening on a garden will not redeem loneliness. I long not for art — I choke on my craving for reality. 

And when the Mafia laughs in my face idiotically, I say: “Idiots are all in the past. The present calls for fuller understanding.” 

Black water spurts from the faucet, Blackish water, stale water, rusty water flows from the faucet — I’ll wait for the real water to come.

Whatever is past is past. So much the better. But I bite at it as at a mystery, nostalgia for the impending present. 

And I’ll never catch hold of it.

Nostalgia for the past is really a desire for connection, and connection is always in the present, but is hard to feel completely connected, fully present.  Perhaps strangely there is something more intimate about the difficult journey remembered than the comfortable here and now.  

The Midrash of the king acknowledges this difficulty of the present and teaches the value and intimacy of shared past experiences, especially difficult ones.   

Ironically, God and the Jewish people are closer in the tests and travails of the desert than they will be after they cross the Jordan River and enter into the promised land.  The desert journey is a difficult time for God and the Jewish people, a time of rebellion, pain, and uncertainty, but it is also, perhaps as a result, a time of deep connection.

Though we will have been cured, ready to move on to nationhood in the land, something will be lost.   I think as the poet says, the trick is to be nostalgic for the past, to realize it is a desire for the present, and to then become fully connected in the present.  In Judaism the past is everything, but perhaps this is so as a door to this moment.     

Shabbat Shalom. 

Rabbi Hyim Shafner serves Bais Abraham Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.