RE:VERB THIRTY-SIX / CHUKAT / SING
A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie
A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.
Finally, from a distance, from the edge of the desert, I heard the singing and knew I wasn't lost. I had been walking for about 15 minutes through the empty streets of Mitzpe Ramon, looking, a bit worried, for the party. It’s a tiny town, Mitzpe Ramon, 5,000 people, in the middle of the Negev desert, built on the edge of the fantastic Ramon Crater, the largest such geological site in the world. Tourism is one of the town's major industries (the nearby air force base coming in second). But I didn't come here to tour the natural landscape – I came to meet local educators and learn about the theories and practices, obstacles and opportunities that guide the educational visions that guide this peripheral, diverse and interesting town. The 2-day study tour was organized and led by the Mandel Leadership Institute, as the final program at the end of a full year of studies. We were a busload – about 60, a motley crew - educators, entrepreneurs, local leaders and social activists, mostly Israelis, a few from the US. After check-in at Mitzpe Ramon's only hotel, we headed right into dinner and a program. Afterwards, I sat in the hotel lobby chatting with some of the other folks, when D. texted with directions to the informal, impromptu party on the cliffs of the crater’s edge. It was past midnight and everybody else was too tired, but I wanted to go. And there I was on this little adventure, into the dark, silent streets of the sleeping city, in search of the edge.
It's a short walk from the hotel to the crater’s edge, but at that weird hour, in the empty streets, the heat still oppressive, a million stars overhead, and no clear directions – I felt like I was walking through a giant movie set, closed for the night – a horror movie with aliens. I was just starting to suspect that I’m actually lost and that I won’t find them and-at-least-I’m-having-a-nice-walk - when, faint at first, I heard voices – singing, laughing – and there they were, right on the edge of the crater. The wind was strong there, the crater opening like a vast dark empty ocean; two guitars playing, a bottle of scotch going around, little clusters of people, a big group sitting and singing a Beatles medley. The scotch must have helped, and the fact that this for many of us was the final night of a great and rigorous year of research and studies, and the presence of the crater – we sang furiously, ecstatically, for a while, anyway. When we got to "Imagine," everybody who was there somehow joined in, and the singing got louder, and one by one people got up, and a circle was, casually, formed. Everybody knew the words. We sang and giggled and danced a little and took pictures. Later we walked back to the hotel through the empty streets, still singing (by then, ballads by Duran Duran.)
There’s something totally vulnerable and intimate and silly and sacred about singing with a bunch of people – certainly when some, or most of them, are in some sort of ‘professional’ and ‘academic’ context. Singing ‘Imagine’ with this bunch of people was like a moment of prayer – a spontaneous call to hope and happiness - using the familiar liturgies of our generation.
All generations sing their songs. Once, in another desert, not too far away from where we were sitting, the generation that left Egypt sang a song to the well. It’s an obscure and lovely biblical song, found in this week’s Torah episode, ‘Chukat’, at the end of chapter 21, right after a plague and just before a war.
“Then Israel sang this song: Rise up, O well—sing to her! A well dug by princes, carved by the leaders;
With scepters, with their own staffs.” (Num. 21 17-18)
There are lots of legends and commentaries attempting to interpret the secret of this song and the meaning of this well. One source, from the Midrash, links a thread from the song of the well to the recent death of Miriam, who perishes earlier in the chapter. She was the guardian of the water, the keeper of the well, and once she died, it was the people’s responsibility to guard the well and to dole the water. Twelve leaders from each of the twelve tribes stood in a circle, raised their staffs, and, in unison, rhythmically, for hours, brought them down on the earth and raised the well that nourished them through their wanderings in the desert.
It’s a beautiful legend – and a powerful symbol. The 12 leaders in this Tribal-trance-dance, forming a circle of song; raising the well of nourishment. They sing, and the water rises and opens to all 12 directions, quenching the thirst of each of the tribes. Where’s that song now? What’s the well? Who are the singers?
We sing at weddings and Karoke Bars, around pianos and in the shower, when we march and protest or parade (happy pride Jerusalem and NYC!) in houses of worship and around dinner tables and campfires and at national events. We sing to feel good, and to harmonize, and to remember and to pray and to cry and to laugh and to care. It’s like raising wells.
Of all the official goodbye ceremonies, speeches, evaluations and festive dinners that we had this past week at Mandel – singing on the edge of the crater is what I’ll choose to remember most. There we were, a random bunch of well diggers, proclaiming to the world, singing into the vast emptiness of the world’s largest crater: ‘Imagine!’.
(and to all the generous well diggers at MLI who’ve made this thirst-quenching possible for me and for all the other singers and diggers – thank you for the music.)