At our preschool graduation this week, children in our 4-year-old class wore mortarboard hats, received diplomas, and ate cake, just as all graduates do. Though they probably didn’t notice, their ceremony included one more tradition from the end of the academic year. While they and their parents ate, mingled, and took pictures, the background music on the CD sang the immortal heavy metal lyrics of Alice Cooper: “School’s out for summer/School’s out forever!”
After nearly a year at Sinai, the Israelites are finally ready to graduate in this week’s Torah reading, Beha’alotekha. What was that procession like? Did the Leviyim play Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance?” The Torah says: “They marched from the mountain of the LORD a distance of three days” (Numbers 10:33). This three-day journey triggers a somewhat shocking midrashic interpretation:
“He only told Israel to march for one day, and they marched on their own initiative for three days, fleeing Mount Sinai. They had spent a full year less 11 days there, and he had given them mitzvot each and every day. So when Moshe told them to march for a day, they marched for three, like a child who leaves school and starts running” (Midrash Yelamdenu).
This reading makes Israel seem like any other group of students–they can’t wait for vacation to begin. But there’s something deeper at play, because they also can’t fathom vacation ending, ever. They are so tired of mitzvot, they sprint from Sinai and don’t stop until they’ve reached a marathoner’s distance. What are they running from? Or are they running to something? Could it be that they’re tired of Moshe’s mitzvot and want to experience God for themselves?
The same questions emerge in Srugim, one of Israel’s most popular TV shows. Srugim tells the story of five religious Zionist singles in Jerusalem, how they struggle for meaningful relationships–with dates, in their work, and with God and their Judaism. In one episode, one of the fictional characters, Hodaya, shares her religious struggles with Dov Elboim, a real TV personality–he left the Haredi world, became secular, and hosts a show about the weekly Torah portion. You can watch this short but powerful clip from Srugim, in Hebrew with English subtitles.
Don’t we all sometimes feel the same desire to flee as Hodaya, as Dov Elboim, as Israel in the midrash? By throwing our mortarboards skyward and saying “School’s out forever” to an active Jewish life, what does one gain? What does one lose?
Wishing you Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise