Thursday, July 19, 2012

Mattot-Masei

There are any number of customs that are prevalent at today’s b’nai mitzvah parties whose origins do not trace back to ancient times.  Let’s explore three. 

And the DJ announces, “It’s Hora time.  Everyone to the dance floor!”  And we jump from our seats and join together in dancing and singing the words of Hava Nagila.  “Come, let us rejoice and be happy!  Come, let us sing!  Awake, awake brothers!  Awake brothers with a joyful heart!”  Most people don’t realize that the words to this familiar song are not that old. 

In fact the tune is based on a Hasidic niggun, prevalent among Jews living in 19th century Ukraine.  It is apparently similar to a Ukrainian folk song.  A niggun is a wordless melody.  They are passed from one generation to the next.  They are typically attributed to specific rebbes, although I have been unable to discover the authorship of Hava Nagila’s tune.  It was the belief of Hasidic Jews that music helps to connect us to God.  Music is the universal language. It was also their belief that no words can suffice in approaching God and so we are left with their wordless melodies.

The Hava Nagila tune was carried by these Hasidic Jews to Jerusalem where Abraham Idelsohn soon discovered it.  He is considered the dean of Jewish musicologists.  Some believe that he authored the accompanying words in 1918 to celebrate the victory of the British in World War I.  The song soon spread throughout Palestine and then made its way to the United States.   By the 1950’s it had become what we recognize today: the staple at parties and simchas.   I wonder, how long before “I Gotta Feeling” achieves such prominence?  

The singing and dancing are of course accompanied by hoisting the 13 year old in a chair and then the siblings and finally the parents.  This appears to be an instance where DJ’s have written a new Jewish custom.  The origins date back to Jewish weddings when the bride and groom were hoisted in chairs and then allowed to reach across the mechitzah with a handkerchief, thereby briefly engaging in mixed dancing.  In such a setting the bride and groom do not touch publicly and so the wedding party helps them to reach out to each other.

In our world such restrictions are obviously not observed.  Bride and groom dance together and are in fact expected and encouraged to slow dance together.  (Susie and I danced to an Elton John song.)  The lifting in chairs has become an expression of unparalleled joy that has now made its way to b’nai mitzvah celebrations.  Dancing is the greatest expression of our joy.  The hora and lifting are quintessential expressions of Jewish joy.  So why do we require expert party enhancers to show us how to dance?  Why do we need experts to show us how to express joy?  What’s wrong with our dancing?

And finally there is the montage.  I always enjoy these photography collections.  I marvel at how privileged is our lot as the countless pictures of different vacation destinations adorn the screens.  I wonder when this custom began?  Although I relish these pictures (especially my own children’s) I remain curious about the purpose of the montage.

This week’s Torah portion marks the conclusion of the Book of Numbers.  The Jewish people are nearing the borders of the land of Israel.  Our portion offers these words: “These are the marching-stages of the children of Israel that they went on from the land of Egypt, by their troops, through the hand of Moses and Aaron.  Moses wrote down their departures, by their marching-stages, by the order of the Lord.” (Numbers 33:1-2)

According to tradition there were 42 stages during the people’s wandering in the wilderness.  Now God instructs the people that they must remember the details of their journey, to recall every place they stopped, to remember if not every moment of their 40 year journey then their departure points.  It is these that Moses must record.  Is this akin to the montage? 

The midrash offers an analogy by way of answering our question: “It is like the case of a king whose son was ill.  He took him to a certain place to cure him.  On their return journey his father began to recount all the stages, saying: ‘Here we slept; here we cooled ourselves; here you had a headache.’ So the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: ‘Recount to them all the places where they provoked Me.’’ (Numbers Rabbah 23:3)

Is it possible that the purpose of the montage is not so much that our friends say, “Ooh and ah,” but that instead our sons and daughters should remember all that we have done for them?  Is it possible that the montage finds resonance in this week’s portion?  Let’s be honest, on the surface the montage does not make sense.  It is a review of a life not yet fully lived.  A 13 year old is not yet completely formed.  Then again neither am I.  And then again neither were the Israelites at this juncture.  Still God instructs Moses to recount their journey.  At such milestones we pause and remember all the places where we journeyed.

Each of those moments should be occasions for giving thanks.  Each of those moments should be occasions for singing and dancing!

Our hearts are joined in prayer and sorrow for the victims of this week’s terrorist attack in Bulgaria.  May justice be swift.  May healing be even swifter.   May peace be realized soon in our day. 

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