October 10, 2019
Sanctuaries in the Wilderness (Rosh HaShanah 5780/2019)
There is nothing like a good ending - is there? Someone even went to the trouble of creating a list of the most iconic endings in Western Literature. In fact, dozens of such lists exist - many of them in agreement about which endings are the best. Let’s try a little trivia. I’ll read the iconic ending. If you recognize the book, shout out the title.
• “But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.” —Winnie the Pooh
• “He loved Big Brother.” —1984
• “Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this.” —Little Women
• “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” —The Great Gatsby
• “God bless Us, Every One!” —Christmas Carol
So iconic even the Jewish congregation knows that one.
Why do we create lists of the best endings of novels? Why do we create lists of the best final movie scenes? Why do we create lists of the best television finales? Because, endings matter a great deal to us. We are passionate about them. Whether it is a novel, a play, or a tv show, we crave endings that satisfy. Not all endings are made equal. A good ending can redeem a story that we’ve disliked. A bad one can ruin a story we’ve loved. So, what makes for a satisfying end?
As Westerners, we’ve been trained by thousands of years of cultural programming to expect certain things before we reach the words, “The End.” Without them, we feel robbed. Whether it be a tragedy or a comedy, we expect tension to resolve and characters’ journeys to wrap up. Western endings are neat and tidy: the hero returns home changed, the romance leads to a wedding, the wronged get their revenge. These expectations run deep. They are grounded in ancient Greek thought, some of it first posited by Aristotle. He wrote, “the end is the most important thing of all.”1 For over 2,500 years, these expectations have been reinforced by what we read, what we watch, and what we see. And woe to the artists who strays too far from the expected formulas.
All this poses a problem for Jews. Sir Frank Kermode, one of the greatest literary critics of the West explains that the Hebrew Bible lacks, “a sense of an ending.”2 Our Bible does not conform with the aesthetics of the Greeks or, therefore, the aesthetics of Stephen Spielberg and J.J. Abrams. The Hebrew Bible was created by a different community with different expectations for conclusions. Biblical endings subvert all our Western norms. Journeys aren’t completed. Tensions aren’t resolved.
Kermode notes that this dissonance was so severe that the early Christian community, heavily influenced by Greek and Roman thought, was forced to add Western style endings to our Hebrew Bible to make it palatable for their audience. This happens in many ways, but the clearest example is the addition of the Book of Revelations which gives an accounting of the end of the world. For Christians, the creation of the world in Genesis is now mirrored with a book all about the final judgment, when saints are saved and sinners condemned.3 The Book of Revelations creates a biblical happily-ever-after…turns out, not for the Jews, but a classic Western ending none-the-less.
But what if wrapping up everything so tidily misses the point? What if the absence of satisfying endings was not a mistake that needed correcting, but rather a feature; a careful choice? Don’t take my word for it – let’s see just how ubiquitous these endings are. Don’t panic, we won’t do the entire Bible; just the entire Torah.
When God asked Abraham to go forth, God made promises. Among them God promised Abraham the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, what will be called Israel. Now, if we had no knowledge of Torah, if we were simply handed a new book with this beginning, as reasonable Western readers, we would expect Abraham’s story to end with him claiming the entire Promised Land after trials overcome. If this was Homer, Shakespeare, or Austen that is how it would go. But, of course, that is not what happens. There is no climactic moment with a John Williams score as Abraham conquers the land he was guaranteed. Instead, Abraham dies with only enough land in Canaan for a grave. That is a terrible ending. It’s like if Luke Skywalker, destined to bring balance to the force, was killed by Darth Vader at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. You would feel like something had gone wrong. But that is the tone of Abraham’s ending.
Fast forward, and Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, is made the same promises. Even if we were pessimists, having been burned by Abraham’s story, we would at least expect for Jacob to have as much of the Promised Land as his grandfather. But Jacob gets less – he dies in exile in Egypt, begging to one day be buried in the Promised Land. Another deeply unsatisfactory ending.
Exodus begins. The Egyptians enslave the Israelites. God promises them the land of Canaan once again and puts three siblings in charge of leading the people there. Anyone who knows how to write a story knows that Torah should conclude with the Israelites in Israel. The promise from Genesis, now so long delayed, must be fulfilled by the last words of Deuteronomy. But, as if this was a George R.R. Martin novel, it doesn’t! Think about this so-called ending. Miriam and Aaron die never even seeing Canaan. Moses gets to glimpse it but dies without ever crossing its border. And, Torah closes with the Israelites still on the wrong side of the Jordan river, waiting for a great battle with the local inhabitants, their fate tenuous and unclear.
Like the kid in The Princess Bride, we could scream at our ancestors, “Geez, Grandpa! Why’d you read me this stuff?”4 It seems bleak. This is not how we talk about the main message of our scriptures. It is certainly not the way we teach these stories to children. And yet, all these Biblical endings are like a drumbeat throughout the Bible, and I promise their message is anything but bleak. Biblical endings serve us far more effectively than Western style endings.
They recognize: “Yes, most of us will face challenges we didn’t foresee, loss we hoped to avoid, and, even when we achieve what we strive for, our successes may lead to more responsibilities and demands.” Then they assure us: “That is not the last word. There is more to living than the inevitability of difficulty and hardship. And, we need not live in a fantasy or fairytale to find endings of meaning and purpose.” Just see these honest Biblical endings in action!
Abraham and Sarah are Biblical heroes. Do they achieve all their tasks? No. They leave behind tension, unresolved relationships, action that must still be taken. But they also knew moments of transcendence. They dined with angels, they walked with God, they elevated those around them, they performed acts of great kindness. They teach us that we can face hardships, we can suffer pain and loss, we can disappoint our family, we can fail, and we can still be worthy of love: we can still do good and be good. Despite their challenges and setbacks, they lived lives of blessing; and that became their legacy; that is how we remember them. What might that lead us to do with our own lives when things get complicated or difficult?
Moses began his life as a Prince in Egypt. Who doesn’t dream of being royalty? What could be better than being prince or princess in the most powerful kingdom in the world? But he was forced to flee and become an anonymous shepherd. That moment must have felt like a terrible loss; like an expulsion from a Promised Land. And yet, Torah suggests Moses was ultimately happier as a shepherd than a Prince. And then, Moses’ quiet life was interrupted when he was called to become the leader of our people. That seems like a promotion; a real step up in the world. But, in another subversive twist, we learn that even with the help of his siblings, even with God’s support, leadership was a terrible burden. At each moment of transition, from prince, to shepherd, to leader, life forced Moses forward - he did not want to go. A condition of living is that, like Moses, we will be forced, at some point, to take down our carefully constructed camp, and begin to wander again. Even so, our Biblical endings comfort us. They remind us that we can have many chapters in life, and we don’t always know what blessings they might bring. As a shepherd in exile, Moses found the love of his life and built a family. As a leader he brought forth laws that endure to this day. He overcame his self-perceived limitations. Biblical endings remind us, trials can be followed by new triumphs, and sometimes what seem like setbacks turn out to be gifts.
“Life is about making adjustments.” That was a beloved phrase of my Great-Grandfather Nathan Saphier. He was a man whose humor edged toward bawdy and who laughed the loudest at his own jokes. And though Laughter came easily to him, life wasn’t easy. He was the child of immigrants, he grew up poor, he lived through the Depression and the World Wars, his beloved wife of decades predeceased him, he watched children and grandchildren face trials that broke his heart. Throughout it all his mantra remained, “life is about making adjustments.” That didn’t mean he resigned himself to whatever befell him. Rather, he looked for what opportunities were still open to him. When the love of his life died, he mourned her deeply, and found the resilience to learn the skills she had brought to their marriage. When his mobility began to fail, he dove into new hobbies that were still possible. As friends passed away, he worked to make new community and new relationships. He did all this, and more, not because he had some magic for it. But because he decided that when life doesn’t follow formulas or storyboards there was always another path back to joy and meaning.
He knew what our Biblical endings so clearly teach: that life is both frailer than fairytales and yet more fulfilling. The beauty of our Biblical endings is that, unlike Western ones, they can comfort us even as they ground us in reality. They whisper to those who will listen: “There are no happily-ever-afters. But there are surely happily-for-nows, and should we be shaken out of those, we can always find happily-once-agains.” The empowering, life-affirming, beauty of Biblical endings is that they remind us that there is no single place called the Promised Land. The Promised Land can be built anywhere and everywhere life’s unpredictable march leads us.
From the time the Israelites set off in Exodus they didn’t wait to reach the Promised Land to live as though they were already there. They didn’t wander for 40 years moaning and groaning about how they would just have to wait till they entered the land’s borders to create a just society, to build an edifice for God, to make it possible for God to dwell with them. Instead, for 40 years, facing all their trials and setbacks they lived as though they had already reached the destination. They lived as if the wilderness was the Promised Land. They followed the mitzvot, they set up their camp as if it was Jerusalem, they built a prototype of the Great Temple. It was called the Mishkan – and it was their sanctuary in the wilderness – a place where God would dwell with them.
That last part is big. God didn’t say, “until you reach the Promised Land, you’ll have to wait to feel My presence.” God said, “Even if you don’t reach the destination, even if you are far from where you hoped to be, even if you’ve made mistakes, I am still here. This place, this desert you find yourself in, it can be a Promised Land; even if it isn’t the Promised Land. Build for yourselves a sanctuary in the wilderness, and I will dwell with you.”
The year ahead is full of promise and hope. Full of light and love. But we know too well that there may also be times when life is hard and certainly hardly what we pictured. There may yet be moments when we feel so very lost and the Promised Land seems so very far. But we don’t need to wait for some Hollywood ending. Our Biblical endings give us strength. We can build a sanctuary together here, right here, in this wilderness of a world. Whether we feel ourselves to be standing on the heights or in the depths, any place can be a sanctuary in the wilderness, if we choose to make it so. And if we make it so, God will dwell with us.
1 Aristotle, James Hutton, Michelle Zerba, and David Gorman. 2018. Poetics: the James Hutton translation: ancient contexts, interpretations, pg 10.
2 Kermode, Frank. 2000. The sense of an ending: studies in the theory of fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
3 Kermode, The Sense of an ending, pgs. 6-7; 47-55.
4 Metro Goldwyn Mayer; Act III Communications; directed by Rob Reiner; screenplay by William Goldman; produced by Andrew Scheinman and Rob Reiner. The Princess Bride. Santa Monica, CA: MGM Home Entertainment, 2000.
Click here to listen to or download audio only (MP3)