As is well known, the name given to a weekly Torah portion reveals its major theme and this week’s parsha, Maasey, is quite a trip.
Maasey are journeys – and this week the Torah details the journeys of bnei yisrael during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after the exodus from Egypt.
אלה מסעי בני ישראל אשר יצאו מארץ מצרים לצבאותם ביד משה ואהרון
In this dvar torah, I would like to show some parallels between our own people’s journey - a people that pursues truth and light, a marginalized people that perseveres and succeeds despite small numbers - and other journeys of modern-day wandering tribes who also seek truth and light.
There is no research and few data to support my claims, but these tribes feature a very high ratio of Jews. This group of people embodies an energy that should be harnessed to bring positive change to the world just as bnei yisrael has done since its inception. These are the people who are the dedicated and devoted live-music fans of a slew of exploratory bands known as “jambands.” Having just seen my favorite jamband play 2 nights in a row right here, live in Philadelphia, my thoughts on the convergence of Torah and jamband music are still fresh.
The beginning of the parsha lists a litany of locations – venues, as it were. These are the stops on the tour out of exile. As the psukim say:
“vayisu……..vayachanu….. vayisu, vayachanu…….”
The parsha repeats this cadence of vayisu, they left, and vayachanu, they camped, for each of the numerous locations. Some sound familiar, some less so, places like Rimmon Peretz, Terach, Chashmonah, The Western Plains of Moav. This is how we wandered through the desert for 40 years – from one place to another, always temporary, always seeking out the next place until we were ready to enter our promised land.
Similarly, fans of Phish and other jambands, and back in the day, the Grateful Dead, follow their favorite musicians to numerous locations. Some sound familiar, like Madison Square Garden and The Mann Music Center, and some less so, like Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, Deer Creek, The Mothership, The Gorge, and more. While there are many fans, like myself, who are married with children and live relatively rooted lives, others follow their favorite bands perhaps for a week or a whole tour. Some in the scene look like they have been wandering for even more than forty years!
The crews pick up and leave to reach the next venue, and camp out for at least a while in the parking lot and tailgate. They are always looking for the next location, the next venue, the next show, following the good vibes.
Before I get to my point, I acknowledge some disconnects. These disconnects include that between Jews on tour and Jews not on tour (which I imagine is most of the Jewish community). There is a disconnect between Jews on tour who are connected to their Yiddishkeit (which includes me, a few friends, my husband) and Jews on tour not as connected to our traditions (which includes many friends and would-be friends, wonderful people who live for the live music yet rarely if ever light Shabbat candles, prefer pagan gatherings, have xmas trees, marry non Jews, or otherwise shirk anything that seems too “Jewish”). Of course, this simplifies things are there are many shades of gray in between.
Shortly after the parsha details the list of locations, it takes us to a higher level
והורשתם את הארץ וישבתם בה כי לכם נתתי את הארץ לרשת אתה
Clear out the land and live in it, since it is to you that I am giving the land to occupy.
Then we learn that the land is distributed to the families by a lottery system,
והתנחלתם את הארץ בגורל
Similarly, to score the insider’s jamband tickets, one enters a lottery months before tickets are made available to the public through traditional outlets. In this way, tickets are distributed to the various different inner networks of friends and families, often overlapping circles, that are so dedicated to their bands.
I’m not the first one to try to connect these seeming disconnects. From 1968-1972 R’ Shlomo Carlebach ran the House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco with this in mind. Many since and many still are on tour with their avodat hashem. My own experiences at shows are enriched and enhanced by my traditional Jewish vantage point. At the same time, there have been countless fellow Jews I have chatted with at shows who claim they aren’t religious and say things like, “being at a show is my church,” and yet this is their most intensely spiritual experience.
Like myself, people go to shows to leave life behind for a while, remember what it feels like to be 17 or 21 again, and yet they are striving to see through the light. Indeed, there is a lot of fog that surrounds.
The way I see it, light is most illuminated through Shabbat, beginning with Shabbat candles and ending with Havdallah. Personally I can’t see how Shabbat candles can glow brightly at the stage of a live music show, but to each her own. Lighting candles far away from a festival stage, however, in one’s tent or cabin, has its own merit. No mention of Shabbat candles in our generation is complete without gratitude towards to work of the Lubavitcher Rebbe who initiated a widely successful campaign to encourage Jewish women and children to light shabbas candles.
I acknowledge the challenge presented in bringing in the light from both worlds – the Jewish and jamband. A most memorable havdallah –at a jamband festival - - a few years ago did exactly this. Amidst the beautiful music, a small group of us who connect to both these worlds brought down the light of Havdallah. And yet all the while my dear friend’s crew who was elsewhere on the festival grounds was incessantly texting her to return to their them, perhaps not realizing the goodness that was happening in our family tent area. The push and pull tensions of both worlds are real, and yet can we harness the best of each.
But where is the journey taking us?
אלה מסעי בני ישראל אשר יצאו מארץ מצרים לצבאותם
We left exile in organized groups, in tribes, as crews, and we need to connect the dots, bring together our collective energies and fulfill our mission, arrive at our destination. When we do this we will all make it to the ultimate show and will merit the ultimate encore.
Then we will be picked up and leave- vayisu-
and we will be taken on the wings of eagles- v’yachanu-
and all of us wandering tribes will camp out together in our land forever.
Theodore Herzl famously said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” Especially in these heady times of unrest in Israel, we need to hold onto this modern-day expression of our gd-given promised land. And of a time when all will be good.
The light will be bright.
The music will unite.
We will all be kind.
We will be redeemed.
And the jam will be epic.
|me at a Jones Beach Phish show , June 2009|