Parashat Pinchas - Disillusionment and Demand

Notes from the Holy Land, Part 2. Click here to see Part 1.

It was a long climb this morning from the Dead Sea plain up to the summit of Masada. I started ambitiously, passing other groups, trying to demonstrate a brisk pace to the 14-year old. But somewhat later, drenched in sweat and plodding up the Snake Path — step, gasp, step, gasp — it dawned on me that the last time I climbed Masada I was 28. I also did it at 19 and at 16. Now - step - I'm - gasp - 50 - step, gasp. It dawned on me that this would be the last time I'd attempt this. I smiled to myself, despite my body's desire to curl up in a ball right there on the spot. And while (who knows?) if my body remains compliant and the opportunity arises I might not in fact hold to that resolve, I felt a small surge of pleasure. Being here at 50, trying to climb as if I were 20, and not failing completely, I felt like I'd at last earned my future cable car rights.

Climbing, one would pass other groups and later be passed by the same ones, as our comparative levels of fatigue and suffering leapfrogged their way up the mountain. One group of Israeli teens got separated into two with considerable distance between them, and took up the habit of shouting down (or up) to each other, while those of us for whom pre-dawn hikes in the Holy Land have a certain mythic quality winced at the noise and got jarred out of our meditative states. "Geez," I couldn't help thinking, impatient with their loud excitement, "why can't they just use their cell phones like everyone else?" Which shows, I suppose, how hardened one becomes after just two weeks here.

The truth is, there is nothing as disillusioning as a trip to Israel. When I return home, it takes months — no, years — for my romanticism to re-accrete on the skin of my sense of Israel. Like many Americans, like many Jews, I go to Israel seeking. Not seeking anything specific, but seeking some validation of who I am as a Jew. At home I engage in personal and community ritual in which the name of this land and its people of old are uttered again and again and again. I breathe Israel in and out. I imagine it and it grows beautiful. So I imagine it to love me back. But then, in the same way that upon a lover's return after a long absence their face is somehow not exactly as you remembered it, a visit to Israel brings on a certain reckoning and re-recognition.

This always involves loss. For instance, I am forced to acknowledge that who I am as a Jew, how I relate to Judaism, how I practice my Judaism, how I hold the idea of Israel, are all part of a spiritual worldview that is born in America, and bound to its soil and its air and its peculiar dream of liberty and individualism. I think about how I (and we) am (are) constantly at play with our tradition, turning it over lightly and carefully, searching for the intent that feels true, and then, at our best, re-shaping our actions to carry that intent forward in vibrant, creative ways. We do it without rabbinic rulings. We do it with a limited 21st Century American Jewish literacy. What we do would be met in Israel alternately with "no!" and "huh?" and "but why?"

Who I am as a Jew is almost never reflected back at me when I'm in Israel.

But I think it is worth resisting the temptation to feel dispossessed. Judaism is our inheritance too; it is there for us to claim. And in this matter, I feel spurred forward by the heroes of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Pinchas.

The parashah contains the unforgettable story of the daughters of Tzelafchad. Their father had died and they had no brothers; this in a culture in which inheritance passed exclusively through the male line. There was no law given at Sinai to address this situation. So the daughters of Tzelafchad sued. Unlike the daughters of Walmart, they got certified for a class action suit and worked their way to the nation's highestauthority: God. They won their suit, albeit with some limitations. But their willingness to claim — to demand — what was theirs in the name of justice, in the name of authenticity, was noteworthy enough to grab the attention of the Holy One and correct an inequity that was handed down at Mt. Sinai.

I love that even before the Five Books of Moses have run their course, torah misinai — the divine law — is already emended. And so this is perhaps what we have to learn from the daughters of Tzelafchad — Machlah, Noah, Choglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah. Holding and owning our Jewish spiritual and moral presence earns us our inheritance. We might not be feeding into the single great future of the Jewish people that we have dreamed or imagined, but are instead creating one of the many authentic Jewish futures that lie ahead.

I'm down with that. While it would be awfully nice to be reflected back by all Jews, in Israel and in the Great World, we won't be and we don't need to be. In moving forward with integrity and authenticity in our Jewish lives, we are demanding our inheritance — and Sinai is being rewritten in our names.

We do not need to be loved by the Orthodox men who rule the "mays" and "may nots" at the Western Wall. Nor do we need to justify our love of Jewish ritual and spirit to the Israeli secular world. The inheritance is ours as much as it is theirs. No apologies needed, and 'nuf said.

As I huffed and puffed and kricht up the Snake Path this morning, I turned once to my husband and said, "I'm sorry I'm not at my best today." He looked at me, almost surprised. "But you are at your best. You're climbing Masada. What could be better?"