Watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been. This was one of Grandmom Freda’s favorite phrases. Probably because I was (and still am) such a klutz, that otherwise I’d do some serious damage to myself. Trip over an uneven point in the sidewalk. Smack straight into a lamp-post. Get run over by somebody else’s basket at the supermarket.
Watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been. Our little Beagle puppy Freddie should have heeded that advice this week on one of our frequently rain-soaked walks. He was so obsessed with the big chocolate Lab behind him down the street – the one that’s eleventy-thousand times bigger than him and would squash him with one swipe of a paw – that he completely missed the bunny rabbit that scurried across the street right in front of us. Addie, the shepherd, spotted it. But bunnies are supposed to be a Beagle thing. And Freddie missed the very first one of the spring.
Watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been. That should be the grandmotherly theme of the Book of Numbers, Bemidbar, which we begin reading tonight. Genesis took us back to the hoary origins of humanity. Exodus took us back, too, to the foundation of our people Israel. Leviticus harkened back to a long-ago time of priests and incense and oils and sacrifices pleasing to God. And, coming up, the Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’s rewriting of all this history from the perspective of a man who was never permitted to see the land that held the promise of Israel’s future. All four of them are reminiscences of times past – combinations of mythology and wishfulness and wistfulness.
But not the Book of Numbers. Of the five books of the Torah, this is the only one that starts out looking where we’re going, not where we’ve been. The Book of Numbers essentially picks up the wilderness narrative where the end of Exodus left off. But the end of Exodus left us dealing with internal issues within a community still forming, still catching up with the idea of freedom. Here, at the beginning of Numbers, there’s a 180 degree turn.
Two years and one month into the Exodus from Egypt, God summons Moses to the Tent of Meeting and commands him to take census of the Israelite community – tribe by tribe, clan by clan – to identify those young men who would form the Israelite army. The army that would protect the women and the children and the elderly as they moved into unknown territory. As they moved farther from Egypt, farther from Sinai, farther from anything they knew.
In Exodus chapter 13 we learned that God did not take the people along the sea route, by the land of the Philistines, ki karov hu. That’s usually translated as although it was near – that is, although the sea route to the Promised Land was a quicker journey, God chose otherwise. But a more insightful translation of the phrase ki karov hu is BECAUSE it was near:
“And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, because that was near; for God said, Lest perhaps the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt.”
In Exodus, God didn’t want the Israelites running scared, back to Egypt, back to slavery and probably to their deaths. But by the first verses of the Book of Numbers, God sees that the Israelites are no longer drawn to the past. God now can focus their attention on where they are going, and not where they’ve been.
The striking about-face in these first verses of the Book of Numbers doesn’t just mark a literal turning point for our ancestors. It gives us some important insights about our lives today – about the pull of the past, maybe as it was or maybe as we imagine it to have been. About moving forward with our lives based, not on what our lives might have been, but on the choices that life presents us today. Try as we might, we cannot turn back time. We cannot, so to speak, go home again.
Did anybody else watch the re-produced episodes of “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” this past week? ABC brought series creator Norman Lear back and re-staged two episodes in front of a live studio audience.
All new casts – including Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei and Anthony Anderson – didn’t just re-create the episodes. They didn’t just use the original scripts as they aired 40 years ago. They took on the character traits of the original actors: Archie’s cigar-infused Bronx bluster that belonged to Carroll O’Connor, Edith’s screechy vocal quality that forever will be identified with Jean Stapleton.
I wanted to enjoy this. I really did. Norman Lear’s shows – “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “The Jeffersons” – I grew up on them. They were the programs that influenced my social views throughout my adolescence.
They laid bare the social upheavals of the 1970s and the struggles that communities and neighbors across America had with integration, the empowerment of women, and the specter of the Vietnam War. They were of that time and of that generation. These shows were unlike anything anyone had ever seen on television. Norman Lear used television as a mirror on his audiences, forcing us to look at ourselves in a way that nobody had before. That’s what made them so powerful.
And that’s why this re-boot didn’t work.
When the most significant moment of the entire hour is Jennifer Hudson in a humongous Afro owning the stage with her rendition of the theme song to “The Jeffersons” – you know something is amiss.
I don’t know if these characters would work today under any circumstances. We aren’t “All in the Family” as much as we are “Modern Family.” “The Jeffersons” was about the first black family on the block, the first inter-racial couple in the neighborhood. But CBS, the network that originally aired so many of Norman Lear’s shows, is now running “The Neighborhood,” where it’s the white family from the Midwest who are the interlopers in a very not-white neighborhood in L.A.
It’s not that people like Archie Bunker don’t exist anymore: Bigots who don’t even realize they are bigots. Anti-semites who will insist they can’t be, because one of their best friends is a Jew. Working-class white people who are conned into believing that black people moving ahead in society must be gaming the system or getting something that they’re not.
It’s not that strict gender stereotyping or the denigration of the work and worth of women is a thing of the past. Not when the #metoo movement has painfully laid bare the cost of saying no to a powerful man. Not when millions of women around this nation are now realizing we must fight the same battles we thought our mothers won forty years ago, when these shows first aired, including the battles for control over our own bodies (as anyone who remembers that episode of “Maude” knows well).
And it’s not that television cannot or should not hold up that mirror to our country today and make each and every one of us take a good long look at ourselves untouched and unfiltered, rather than in the photo-shopped way we would like others to see us. In fact, I think we need that more than ever.
One critic wrote: I’d like to see Archie Bunker deal with today’s issues, not those of 40 years ago. And maybe that would work, I don’t know. Norman Lear is a genius. What he did in the 1970’s was new and honest and astonishing and uncomfortable – for its own time. And maybe he could do something equally astonishing and honest for our time.
But, my friends, we have to watch where we’re going, not where we’ve been. Nostalgia will not touch us, or disturb us, or inspire us to face today’s challenges. Like the Israelites of old, we cannot yearn for what life was – or what we now imagine it was, distorted, as that may be, by our own fading memories.
In these first few verses of the Book of Numbers, God is making sure that the Israelites will be looking in the right direction.
They will be armed with the mitzvot that shape their years in the wilderness — the same rules and ethical values that guide us today.
The laws about how we wage war, for which the census sets the stage.
The laws of our feast days and fast days that have shaped our national character from generation to generation.
Care of the land that has been entrusted to us.
Care of our neighbors – those who work and eat and pray alongside us – regardless of where they come from or what they look like.
Care of the strangers who come to our communities, in the full knowledge that we are now the ones with power over other people’s lives.
Aaron will die, and life will go on. Miriam will die, and they will still move forward. One generation will take over from another. And the generation that had not known slavery – that had no reason to look where they’d been – will be granted the gift of completing the journey to where they were going.
We must be that generation. We must be honest enough to withstand that scrutiny in the mirror. We must be brave enough, and kind enough, to build a world – one block, one neighborhood, one community at a time – that reflects the values the Torah gave us thousands of years ago.
Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2019 Audrey R. Korotkin