BeMidbar: In the desert. Cucamonga, like Jerusalem is at the edge of the desert. When in Cucamonga, to get to the desert you head east on the I-10 (Interstate Freeway 10). Like desert? Try Palm Springs.
In the Coachella Valley, nestled on the west by the San Jacinto Mountains and the Santa Rosa Mountains and on the north and east by the Little San Bernardino Mountains, Palm Springs has a dry desert climate. Better, the closeness of the mountains make for mild winters and mild(er) summers and supply ample groundwater for irrigation. Palm Springs is a resort town, a vacation spot and if you head a bit east to the town of Palm Desert (California, no?) a retirement home heaven. That is how Rabbi Irving J. Mandel and my sister-in-law’s grandfather met in Palm Springs.
Not that they actually knew each other. They met at my sister-in-law’s grandfather’s funeral.
Rabbi Mandel had been the rabbi at the Reform synagogue, Temple Beth Israel of Pomona for 40 years before retiring to a quiet life of golf (there are at least 30 golf courses in Palm Desert) and leisure interspersed with him officiating at various Jewish religious “life-cycle” events. Many of these events were focused on the needs of Jewish post (or is that post post ?) retirement community. People can come for the salubrious weather, the golf, the shopping and the rich cultural life, but there is no escaping the inevitable.
So when the time came, on a late afternoon in the the early part of June, my brother and his wife drove from Cucamonga to stand with Rabbi Mandel and some gathered family and acquaintances of the deceased at an open grave. I imagine my brother in a dark suit and a fedora and my sister-in-law somberly dressed, both of them looking like followers of Chabad Judaism, which they were by then. Rabbi Mandel officiated the funeral, perhaps quoting the various homilies and passages suited to the occasion. Then , turning to my brother, the Rabbi respectfully asked: “Is there anything you would like to add, Rabbi?”. My brother, wryly answered : ” I’m not a rabbi, but I know you and you were once my rabbi”.
And so it was. Rabbi Mandel was our rabbi from the age of five, when we started Sunday school till the age of ten when our mother decided to switch to the Conservative synagogue in Ontario. What did we see as children at a Reform Temple? We saw a caring and loving father figure who liked being with children and teaching them. Of course most of the time we were with our classes and our contact with the Rabbi was limited, but the overall experience was positive and, in the long run, that is what has mattered. Till today, whatever criticism I have of the Reform Movement, I remember my own first steps to Judaism at Temple Beth Israel of Pomona. “Do not throw a stone in the well you have drunk from.” (Midrash Raba Bemidbar). I will always have a debt of gratitude to Rabbi Mandel and the Reform Movement for starting on my journey to ….Israel.
The Book of BeMidbar (or Numbers) is indeed a story of the journey starting from the year after the Exodus from Egypt to the walls of Jericho some 40 years later. In between is told stories of spies and of rebels, talking donkeys and wicked wizards. In the end Moshe, who leads the Children of Israel selflessly through the desert is forbidden to enter the Promised Land, “to see and not to enter” and is buried, by G-d Himself, in the Jordan mountains overlooking the Judean Hills. BeMidbar is the story of the generation of the Desert which is also the generation of the Exodus from Egypt, that when found lacking in Emuna, or belief, was destined to die in the desert. Only the young and those born in the desert were found worthy to inherit the Land of Israel. They are the generation that conquer and settle the land. They are the generation that bring the Ark to Shiloh.
Between Holocaust Remembrance Day till Jerusalem Day it is fitting to reflect the miracles that have happened in the space of 70 years and how they have shaped modern Judaism. Rabbi Mandel represents in many ways the Generation of the Desert, a good man and a good rabbi, but still when he retired he chose Palm Springs over Israel. Some of the commentators on the episode of the Twelve Spies teach that the Spies’ intentions were in fact good. They realized that while in the desert life was simpler and G-d was close to the Children of Israel. Coming into the Land, they argued, would cause divisions and force the Israelites to confront heavy responsibilities, responsibilities that the Spies (all leaders) felt their charges were not ready for.
In the end of BeMidbar a new generation has risen and it is Moshe that is unable to continue to Israel. One reason given is that Moshe represents an outdated leader whose time has passed. For the conquest and occupation of the Land of Israel, a new leader, Joshua, is needed. Circumstances evolve, a People evolves, and so the leadership must change for the tasks ahead.
I am curious what Rabbi Mandel thought when he heard what my brother said. Was he surprised to see someone who was once “one of his students” become an Orthodox Jew? Was he pleased? That I can not really know. I doubt that many of my peers from Beth Israel have chosen the routes that my brother and myself have taken, to become both Orthodox Jews and to move to Israel, but I wouldn’t be surprised either. Even today, if you check Temple Beth Israel’s Facebook page one get the feeling that the synagogue is a warm vibrant place with an emphasis on educating children. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step and a spark can light a fire.
Rabbi Mandel isn’t Moshe Rabbeinu, but then I am no Joshua either. To Rabbi Mandel, who for all I can ascertain, is now 95 years old and still in Palm Springs , a wish a long and healthy life till 120. If you ever tire of the desert, come to Israel. Two of your “students” are waiting for you here.