Friday, August 3, 2012

Va'et-hannan 5772 - I'm in a Horeb State of Mind

Last week, I went with my family to stay with my parents in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where I spent most of my first eighteen years of life.  Although I have lived in many locales, it is the one place where I feel more “at home” than any other.

Taking my family to Williamstown is always a treat, because I have the opportunity to point out little pieces of history: this is the golf course where we used to collect abandoned balls to knock around the yard; there used to be a great candy store here; here is where I once saw Christopher Reeve, who had a home in Williamstown, eating a sandwich.  (I asked for his autograph; he asked me not to tell all my friends to come do the same thing.)

And yet, it's just not the same.  My perspective as an adult, as one who has been to many places and experienced many things since leaving home, makes everything seem somehow smaller, less powerful when seen through adult eyes.  The soccer field upon which we rejoiced in victory and choked up over loss; the schoolyard where 6th-grade drama played out in its full, nasty glory, the single-screen movie theater where my friends and I saw the best and worst movies of the 1980s are today less valent, less polarized with emotional residue.

My current realities of fatherhood, of bills and appointments and the endless logistics of scheduling the modern family have changed the equations of memory and my youth.  What is distant is now far less powerful.  This is perhaps a good thing; if the maxim, “Time heals all wounds,” had no real value, we would never recover from the devastating losses of loved ones, or relationships gone bad, or the truly embarrassing moments that we have all faced.  We grow, we change, we mature.

But more than this, we learn to take responsibility for our choices.  We learn independence.  Ideally, we learn how to lead as well, and we learn that we can conduct our lives without the supervision of others.

We read this morning in Parashat Va'et-hannan the re-iteration of the covenant at Mt. Sinai, the so-called Ten Commandments or Aseret Ha-Dibberot.  Perhaps a few of you remember that two years ago we compared the language back-to-back of each of the occurrences of the Decalogue in the Torah, the first in Shemot / Exodus and the second in Devarim / Deuteronomy, and noticed some significant linguistic as well as thematic differences.  One curious difference between the two scenes that we did not discuss is the name of the place: in Shemot, the place where they receive it is called Sinai, and the one we read today it is called Horev / Horeb.

Why the change?  What's the difference?

The traditional commentators do not have much to say on this.  Rashi does not even appear to notice.  Midrashic sources suggest that Horeb is the original name, and that “Sinai” might refer to the word “sin'ah”, hatred, since it is at Sinai that the Israelites learned to hate the heathens who did not accept God’s word; the parallel with Horeb is that the latter could be related to herev, sword, since this is where the Israelites learned that sinners should be put to death.  As you can imagine, I am not particularly fond of these faux etymologies for a variety of reasons.  

Another possibility given by the midrash is “seneh”, bush, referring to the burning bush, because one theory is that this incident happened on the same mountain.  Or it might be that the mountain is called Horeb, and the land in which it is found is Sinai.  Another midrash suggests that there may have been as many as six names to this location, which perhaps lessens the need to find a reason for the Horeb/Sinai question.

Regardless, it is curious that the name is different in the context of Shemot versus that of Devarim.  I'd like to propose another theory: the names are different precisely because the context is different.  Not Shemot vs. Devarim, per se, but rather that in the first recounting of Moshe's sojourn on the mountain, the Israelites have just left Egypt; they are, for the first time, masters of their own destiny.  They have freedom, and they are not entirely sure what to do with it.  We all know that the generation of freed slaves whined their way across the desert.  “Moshe, are we there yet?”  “Moshe, we're thirsty.”  “Moshe, we miss the meat and the onions of Egypt.”  They are immature, unable to cope with their new status; they must be coaxed by the hand into their new lives.

But the second telling, the one we read today, occurs nearly forty years later.  The tribes are now led by the children and grandchildren of those former slaves, and they have a new perspective.  As such, they are ready to accept the mitzvot, to accept the obligations of the covenant with God.  They are now a mature people, about to enter their own land.  They have changed, and their perspectives have changed.

Horeb and Sinai are not really two names for the same place; they are distinct names for different states of mind.  Sinai is a place not of hatred, but of immaturity; Horeb is a place of readiness, of willingness to step forward into a new life, of leading rather than following.

At Sinai, Moses is at the height of his leadership, but that is as much about the Israelites as it is about him.  At Horeb, Moses is preparing to relinquish leadership, to hand over the reins to Joshua, the only clear leader who emerged from the prior generation.  This leadership piece is an essential part of the Horeb equation.  As the Israelites have matured between Sinai and Horeb, they have also gained the ability to accept and participate in leadership.

Now back to halfway around the world, to the Massachusetts Berkshires.  When I was in Williamstown last week, a piece of news momentarily captured local attention.  A childhood acquaintance ofmine, Andrew Nicastro, was awarded a settlement of $500,000 for his civillawsuit against two retired bishops of the local diocese of the Catholicchurch.  Between 1982 and 1984, when we were in junior high school, Mr. Nicastro was regularly molested by a local priest, Father Alfred Graves.  The lawsuit charged that the bishops knew that Father Graves had committed similar sins elsewhere, and had covered it up.  I knew Andrew from the age of eight or so because we played on the same soccer team; his father was also a member of the faculty with my father at nearby North Adams State College; I was unaware of the abuse until eight days ago.  However, the details of the lawsuit and the settlement indicate that this horrible crime against him could easily have been prevented.

I am not in a position to judge the Catholic Church and its issues, and that is not my intent.  But it is clear that what happened to my friend resulted from a disastrous failure of leadership.  Rather than do the right thing in 1976, when charges against Father Graves were first raised, the bishops covered up the problem and moved him to a different parish, as was done with Catholic priests all over the world when such charges came up.

The diocesan elders were not at Horeb; they were at Sinai.  They responded to the problem not by defrocking Father Graves (as eventually happened, but not soon enough), but rather by seeking a quick fix.  This is not leadership.  We can only hope that after all of the similar cases that have come to light in recent years, that they have in fact made the move to Horeb, have learned to make the responsible choice, and have atoned for their past failures.

I was shocked when I first heard this news a week ago on the Albany NPR station.  Often, cases like this seem to emerge somewhere else.  But this was not a faceless victim; this was somebody I knew personally.

I have always thought of my idyllic Berkshire background as being innocent, pure.  It simply does not seem like a place where disturbing things like this happen.  How could such a thing have taken place, just under all of our pastoral, small-town noses?  Sitting in my parents’ kitchen, reading an editorial in the Berkshire Eagle about the case, I found myself thinking, Where am I?  Is this really Williamstown?  Or is this some other place, some other state of mind? 

Granted, I never went to St. Patrick’s Church.  But on some level, that could have been me.

Perhaps my childhood illusions are now completely gone, eclipsed by the hard, unseemly realities of adulthood, of failure and loss, of dysfunction and criminality.  Regardless, this tale serves as a reminder that no matter where we are, we are never exempt from the responsibilities of doing the right thing.  We can never be at Sinai; we must always be at Horeb.  We must always step back from the situation, from the anxiety and the emotion and sometimes even the inclination to forgive those whom we know personally for their wrongs.  Moshe will not be there to accompany us into the Promised Land; that we must do ourselves.  Let us hope that the Catholic Church has taken that step, so that not only will my friend Andrew find some peace, but that there will be no more like him.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, August 4, 2012.)

1 comment:

  1. You could have read the Boston Globe of Aug. 2, as I did in the same town: the headline was about a rabbi being sentenced to two years' probation for the same crimes at the Maimonides Hebrew School in Boston! There the victims weren't Catholics but our own! And the perp was one of your colleagues.