Parshat Mattot: Fishing for a Free Market Spirituality
Fishing is a wonderful pastime. As the saying goes, Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. To be honest, I’ve never actually gone out on a boat to fish. The closest I came to such an experience was twenty years ago, it was my Ilanot summer in fact, at Camp Ramah in New England. For our edah play, we put on a theatrical production of the Muppet Movie. I was not cast as Kermit, I was a bit too shy at that stage in my life, but I was cast as the “fisherman”, a man who inspires Kermit to trek out of the swamp to audition in Hollywood. This lost talent agent, played by Dom Deluise, is a bit part in the movie version, but as Camp would rewrite the script, I sat in a canoe on our Beit-Am stage and sang the duet “Kesher shel haKeshet” with Kermit Hatzfardaya. Kesher, as we all know, is connection, keshet, a rainbow; the rainbow connection. I can still recall “Yom echad nimtzah et zeh, hakesher shel hakeshet, ha-ohavim, hacholamim v’ani.” By the way, the bunkmate who sang with me is finishing up cantorial school at HUC this year. Fast forward 7 more summers to my last year as a camper. The greatest production ever put on at Machaneh Ramah b’new England: Melech Ha’aryot– the Lion King. It’s actually our production at next week’s Camp Ki Tov Shabbat featuring Koltrain.
Such awesome music would be enough. What made this production over the top? Everyone in our edah bought in. Talented madrichim led the way. One madrikh, a costume design major at Rhode Island School of Design, helped a group of campers design intricate lion masks that would fit over our microphones as the lions grew from toddler cubs to king and queen of the jungle. Another madrikha, a featured vocalist in an award winning collegiate a cappella group, wove tight harmonies for the vocalists. Everyone in the edah had a part- behind the scenes or on center stage. And where are those lead characters now? Those who played Timon, the mongoose and Pumba, the wart-hog, are now Rabbis. It was through my experience as Simba, a big step up from “the fisherman”, that I became more and more interested in Jewish music and eventually a life in the cantorate.
Camp Musicals are transformative experiences- for one, camp musicals teach basic Hebrew. Kids figure out that if Chayim means “life” and Galgal Hachayim is supposed to mean something like “Circle of Life”, Galgal must have something to do with circles. By the way, it means wheel. More than a vocabulary lesson, musicals are a moment to bond as a community- to thrive under the spotlight; to prepare for what seems like months for one special performance. It is the collection of these shared experiences that makes places like Ramah or USY or any alternative summer experience so special. The group can say, “Remember when we put on Chaya V’fayfiya, Beauty and the Beast? Remember when we davened outside a 7-11 in Sioux City? Or how about when we repainted our Mo’adon, or meeting space, to resemble the Kotel?” These collections of shared experiences define a unique Jewish way of living. It is what we struggle to recreate during the year. We can recreate a scenario, a moment, an environment, for a moment, but we lack the simple fact that Judaism in all of these cases, operates in a bubble. There is automatic buy-in because there’s only one product to be sold. And yet sometimes there are moments when everyone buys in because they want to, not because it’s the only option.
Total buy-in. It’s not something we find prevalent in this week’s parsha, Mattot. The Israelites are at a standstill. They’ve been living the wilderness bubble. As they are ready to take over the land of Israel, two tribes make a peculiar request to Moses. The tribes of Rueben and Gad request to settle East of the Jordan, on the “other side of the River,” breaking away from the rest of the Jewish people. What’s the reasoning behind the request? The Jordan had lush pastures for their abundant livestock. They chose a comfortable life outside Israel’s borders instead of a spiritual one inside them. Numbers 32:16 states “Enclosures for the flock we shall build here for our livestock and cities for our children.” Rashi points out that the tribes of Reuben and Gad had their values in the wrong order- it should’ve been build cities for your children, and then be concerned with your flock.
Reuben and Gad have their priorities out of whack. What’s more important? The Material? The Spiritual? How about the Ecological? Or is there a balance between the three?
We find a group who wants to be on the outside, that doesn’t buy in to the overall plan-so what does Moses do? Moses is able to obtain the tribes’ help in their conquest of Israel. And after first rebuking their request, Moses rewards Reuben and Gad for going to battle. Time passes, and the two tribes struggle to not become the “other”, the broken piece. They struggle to maintain their identity, and their support system on the western side of the river forgets its ties to Reuben and Gad.
Today, there is a river flowing across the Jewish landscape. On one side, we have the establishment- long standing Jewish institutions, federations, synagogues. On the other side of the river are new Jewish think tanks, start-ups, out of the box outreach groups. There are now 600 Jewish startups in North America that engage more than half a million Jews, up from about 300 startups in 2008, according to the findings of the 2010 Survey of New Jewish Initiatives. More than 150 of these Jewish startups – have launched since 2008. The study states, “We have a generation that is so well educated and so well connected and so empowered – partly by that education, partly by technology – to take their Jewish lives in their own hands, and create programs that work for them and for their peers. They come from the core of the Jewish community so they’re best able to identify holes in the system, what’s not working.” But the news is not all positive. The closure this past week of the not-for-profit record label JDUB Records, founded 9 years ago by two NYU students, is a cautionary tale of the lack of second-stage funding for these new initiatives. JDUB, the first record label for Chassidic reggae star Matisyahu, was no longer the start-up. They were a 10 year old successful organization who fought through the most difficult times for the music industry. There was an expectation that JDUB would suddenly be self-sustaining. But they were out on their own, on the other side of the river, and the Jewish community had no fishing line long enough to real them closer.
In truth, I’m not sure what side of the river we, as a synagogue, are on. Are we Reuben and Gad- taking the safe and comfortable route and not taking the plunge across the sea into the Promised Land.? Or maybe we’ve crossed over the river after guiding those start-up tribes through infancy, and now leave those groups to survive on their own? As the verse says, Reuben and Gad wanted to build cities for their children, but what can we do to maintain those cities, to nurture them post-infancy? How do we continually open passageways across the river? How do we buy in to each other’s products?
Under the Jewish microscope, we are and should be a Kehillat Gesher, a community of bridging. We can connect Reuben and Gad to the rest of the Israelites. One does not have to decide what side of the river to fully commit to. It’s a Free Market, a Free Spiritual Market- religious leaders, non-religious leaders, travel across the bridge, trading ideas and experiences. To an even greater degree, like on an old bridge Leora and I once visited, the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, we can set up shops directly on the bridge itself, as was once common. Like at the marketplace, we assemble looking for different things based on our varying interests. When the market closes up for the day, maybe we’ll travel over to the other side of the bridge- knowing full well that tomorrow, we will meet up again, open our arms and embrace one another. Above the uncertainty and craziness of the crashing waters we can create a safe haven for support, growth, and change. We should always be a continuing source of help and guidance. We, like the Israelites, go through growing pains, through aging pains. Let us taste the fresh produce of the marketplace, sustaining bridges and not boundaries. In doing so, it won’t matter what side of the river we live on. Support- both financial and emotional, flows freely. We can build stronger community when we all buy-in to that shared community.