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Mattot-Masei: List To Remember

On Sunday night, my family went to the July 4th celebration at the Hollywood Bowl. The concert was by the LA Philharmonic, accompanied by Vince Gil, and concluded with fireworks. The music was fantastic; the fireworks were spectacular. The evening included an awe-inspiring tribute to members of the five branches of the armed forces. Those in the audience who had served in the military were asked to stand when their branch’s anthem was played, and everyone clapped in thanks for their service to the country. To me, though, the most meaningful part of the evening had nothing to do with the concert itself.

We had wonderful seats, several sections back from the front, but on the left hand side. At one point early on in the concert, I looked around and behind me. Seeing the back rows, I remembered the first time I’d been to the Hollywood Bowl – when I had sat there. Thirteen years ago, my classmates and I went to the Bowl during orientation week of rabbinical school, just a few days after I moved to Los Angeles. That night, I sat next to a fellow student, Rachel, who soon became my study partner and best friend. I remember being both excited and nervous that night. I wondered whether I would make friends and enjoy my life in this new city where I knew practically no one. I hadn’t thought about that night since, but returning to the same spot brought back the memories of that time, and caused me to reflect on how far my life has come since then.

In this week’s Torah portion, the people in the desert have a similar experience. As they approach the Promised Land, Moses recorded all the places that the people had stayed in their forty years in the desert. This list is long and boring: “They set out from Ramses, and camped in Sukkot; they left Sukkot and went to Etham …” The text continues in this riveting fashion for another 42 verses!

Yet, what seems to us like a dry list must have been a moving walk down memory lane for the people. According to Numbers Rabbah (a collection of rabbinic interpretations on these verses), God performed a miracle for the people at each of these places. The list includes where manna first fell down from the sky, and where Moses struck the rock to bring forth water. Therefore, listing the places would have reminded the people of all the miracles that God did for them.

For me, returning to the Hollywood Bowl had the same effect. When I looked back at the seats, I realized that had I been told the first time I went to the Bowl that I would become a rabbi, meet and marry my husband, have two beautiful children, and live in a house, how thrilled I would have been at this news which seemed entirely out of reach at the time. I was overcome with gratitude.

Indeed, I’ve recently discovered a spiritual trick that helps brighten up almost any day. The only caveat is that this method only works if now is not the worst time in your life.

The trick is that you think of the worst part of your life and get into the mindset of that time. You remember what you wanted and how unattainable those desires were, and then you view your current day through those eyes. For example, a few weeks ago, I went downtown to buy tickets to the circus. I was a bit annoyed to be running this errand. It entailed my driving around in an unfamiliar area. I have no sense of direction and get lost very easily. I was worried about navigating by myself. I also was concerned about how long it might take, as I had a lot of work to do that day.

Then I thought about myself at age seventeen. At that time, my parents were going through a nasty divorce, and all I wanted was to live in a home where people weren’t fighting, to grow up and have my own peaceful family. At the time, this dream seemed impossible. Through my seventeen-year-old eyes, my errand seemed entirely different. I suddenly felt grateful to have a family for which to buy circus tickets, and my day brightened.

Actually Vince Gil conveyed the same idea in his concert. Gil is a famous country singer who has won 20 Grammy awards and sold some 22 million albums. In the concert, he mentioned that he had come to Los Angeles briefly in 1976 with his Banjo trying to make a name for himself. At that time, he said that “he never would have dreamed that he would one day play at the Hollywood Bowl,” and so it was “the thrill of a lifetime” for him to be there. He must play at large amphitheatres all the time now, but the fact that he remembered the perspective of the earlier times in his life was the key to his gratitude and humility. I bet he doesn’t know that he embodies the lessons of this week’s Torah portion.

For the fireworks exhibition, I was holding Hannah on my left lap and had my arm around Jeremy on my right. As the kids marveled at the fireworks, I was also in awe — not only of the pyrotechnics but of my children. Watching the fireworks, my kids screamed, “Oh My God, Oh My God.” I couldn’t have agreed more!

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.

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