In this blog post, I explore links between the 42 stops of the Israelites leaving Egypt recorded in the biblical book Numbers, to the 17 stops that my wife Miriam and I made before settling in our current home in Israel. The final portion of Numbers, Masei/Journeys (Numbers 33:1-36:13) read in synagogues on Shabbat, August 6, 2016, explores how each stop along life’s journey offers new opportunities for seeing creatively and spiritually.
I describe below the 17 stops that we made in the United States and Israel during our 57 years of marriage. The gematria (numerical value) of the Hebrew word “tov” (good) is 17. As two artists and educators, Miriam and I found beauty and goodness in each of our stops along the way that we shared with our children and students.
“These are the journeys of the Israelites, going out of Egypt in organized groups under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Moses recorded their stops along the way at God’s bidding.”(Numbers 32:1-2)
Why “journeys” in plural? Only the first of the 42 journeys recorded was going out of Egypt (Egypt is Mitzrayim in Hebrew, a word for narrowness).
Judaism teaches that we should see ourselves each day as if we traveled out of Egypt, away from narrow-minded thinking.
“From the narrow straits I called upon God; God answered me with expansiveness.” (Psalm 118:5).
My newest book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of your Life http://photographgod.com teachers others how see their journeys as creative and spiritual stops in breaking away from narrow-minded thought to expansive thought.
SEEING CREATIVELY AND SPIRITUALLY
Each stop along life’s journey expands opportunities for seeing each new place creatively and spiritually. To see creatively is to expand the number of connections that link experiences of a new place to others in fresh ways. To see spiritually is find beauty and goodness in everyday life encountered in a new place.
When leaders of the Israelite tribes were sent to explore the land of Israel, they saw no beauty or goodness there. They trembled in fear of the giants that they saw. When Calev saw the same giants, he said “What wonderful food must grow in the Land. Our children will grow big and strong when we live there.”
Only Calev of the tribe of Judah who possessed a “different spirit” could envision holy sparks emerging from all he saw. Those ten tribal leaders, who could not part with the narrow viewpoint of slaves in Mitzrayim and could not envision the creative challenge of entering the Promised Land, were condemned to die in the desert.
“Calev said to the whole Israelite community, ‘The Land that we passed through to explore is a very, very good Land!’” (Numbers 14:6-7)
“God said, ‘The only exception will be My servant Calev, since he showed a different spirit and followed Me wholeheartedly. I will bring him to the land that he explored, and his descendants will possess it.’ (Numbers 14:24)
The prototypical biblical artist Bezalel was Calev great-grandson. He was endowed with the Divine gift of transforming many different materials into expressions of beauty. He used his aesthetic skills to create the Tabernacle, a portable Lego-like structure that was taken apart and reconstructed at each stop in the Israelites’ journey across the desert.
“Moses said to the Israelites: ’God has selected Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and has filed him with the divine spirit of wisdom, understanding, knowledge and a talent for all types of craftsmanship.’” (Exodus 35:30, 31)
Bezalel means in the God’s shadow, Uri means my flaming light, and Hur means freedom.
In our day, the descendants of Calev and Bezalel are being ingathered from the four corners of the earth to the Land of Israel. The creative perceptions of Calev coupled with the aesthetic sensibilities of Bezalel offer a model for education in Israel.
SANCTIFICATION OF THE WORLD
The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches: “The Jew was not created to stand still. There is always a new journey before him…. The miracles which sustained the Jews in the wilderness were not the apex of spiritual existence. They were only a preparation for the real task: taking possession of the Land of Israel and making it a holy land. The purpose of life lived in Torah is not the elevation of the soul; it is the sanctification of the world.”
“God said to Abram, ‘Go for yourself away from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.’” (Genesis 12:1)
The story of the Jewish people begins with walking away from narrow-minded thought to reach an expansive vision. It is a Divine invitation to leave all too familiar ways in order to come to see a new place.
“The Place,” Hamakom is Hebrew, is one of God’s names, a spacial name for the Omnipresent that can be encountered everyplace.
The biblical narrative describes Jacob coming upon a nameless place on his journey from his parent’s home to a distant place that he has never seen. It was at that place where he stopped to sleep that he had the dream of a ladder linking heaven and earth.
“And Jacob left Beersheba and headed toward Haran. He came upon THE PLACE and spent the night there because the sun had set; and he took from the stones of THE PLACE which he arranged around his head and lay down in that PLACE.” (Genesis 28:10-11)
It was in this rocky no-man’s-land that Jacob encountered Hamakom. If God is in everyplace, how could Jacob have stumbled upon Hamakom in one particular place? Jacob came upon a new insight rather than finding a new geographical place. He came to realize that in the finite makom, the place where he happened to stop for the night is where he encountered the infinite Hamakom.
He began to see that God was present wherever he stopped on his life’s journey. Jacob stumbled upon the understanding that wherever he found himself was the right place at the right time. When he awoke from his sleep, he said “Surely God is present in this place and I did not know it…. How awesome is this place” (Genesis 28:17-18). Jacob’s insight teaches us how awe-inspiring it is to discover God’s presence everyplace we happen to find ourselves.
A JOURNEY OF TWO ARTISTS
I was born and grew up in New York City and in summers among the swallows, salamanders and sowbugs of the Catskill Mountains. My mother was born in Boston and my father in New Jersey.
Miriam was born in the Dutch colony of Suriname where the Amazon jungle reaches the Atlantic Ocean. Her parents were born in Amsterdam. She moved to Israel when she was 9. Her father brought the family to New York for two years for business reasons. We were married in 1959 when I was 22 and she was 18.
Our first four stops as a married couple were towns on Long Island. Our first three children, Iyrit, Ari and Ron, were born at the first stop. I was a science teacher and author of science books for children while studying for an interdisciplinary doctorate at NYU in art, science, and psychology of creativity. Miriam was a dedicated mother while studying child psychology.
After ten years in in the US, we packed up our home in Old Bethpage (#4) and made aliyah with our children to Ra’anana where we rented a little farmhouse (#5) in an orange grove while building a modern home (#6) on the other side of a peanut field. I taught science education and creativity at Tel Aviv University and art and creativity at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. Miriam created a warm Jewish home for us and helped our children learn Hebrew.
Unhappy with education in Israel, we sold our house and moved to a rented house at the top of Mt. Carmel (#7) where Miriam and I created the Center for Creative Learning, the experimental school of the University of Haifa, the first open school in Israel. Our children were among our pupils.
We moved from Haifa to Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi (#8) where Mel realized his Catskill Mountains childhood dream of being a Jewish farmer. Having quite pools of time in the turkey coops removed from the hostility of Israel’s educational bureaucrats, the creative flow of fresh ideas led to an offer of a professorship at Columbia University, an offer I couldn’t turn down.
We bought a house in Teaneck, New Jersey, (#9) next to a wooded bird sanctuary, a short drive over the George Washington Bridge to Columbia. I taught courses that I created: “Morphodynamics: Design of Natural System” and “Designing Environments for Learning.” Miriam studied in Columbia’s graduate art education program.
After four wonderful years at Columbia, our Zionist values and pioneering spirit brought us to Yeroham, a isolated town set in the middle of the Negev desert mountains. We moved into a prefabricated house (#10) and created a new college addressing culture, social and economic problems of the area. I headed the college and Miriam taught ceramics there. I also taught graduate courses on aesthetic education at Bar-Ilan University. Our fourth child, Moshe was born an uncle while we were in Yeroham. Our daughter Iyrit, living in Israel. was mother of two girls
After seven years in Yeroham, MIT invited me to spend my sabbatical year as a research fellow at their Center for Advanced Visual Studies. We rented a house in Boston (#11) where we lived with Moshe (2) and Ari (22) who worked with me at MIT. Our third son Ron (20) was studying in Merkaz Harav rabbinical college in Jerusalem. Miriam studied for her master’s degree at Massachusetts College of Art while Moshe was in the Young Israel of Brookline day-care center. Ari married Moshe’s teacher Julie.
Our plans to return to Israel after my sabbatical were thwarted by the tragic death of my sister Fran’s husband in a plane crash. She was left devastated with two children in New York. I accepted the position as head of the art department at Pratt Institute so that Miriam and I could be near her. We moved to Brooklyn were we rented an apartment (#12) and later bought a condominium (#13). Miriam earned her MFA at Pratt and taught ceramics in college.
Five years later after Fran had remarried, we once again planned to return to Israel, when my father passed away leaving my elderly mother alone in Florida. There’s a Yiddish expression: “Man plans. God laughs.” I was appointed dean at New World School of the Arts, University of Florida’s arts college in Miami. Miriam became art in residence at the South Florida Art Center. Miriam and I worked together with our students and elders of the major ethnic community of Miami to create three monumental “Legacy Thrones” facing Biscayne Bay. We rented a house for two years (#14) and bought one on a tidal river (#15) where we lived for eight years until finally coming home to Israel in 2000.
Miriam flew to Israel and bought us an apartment in Petah Tikva (#16) near Iyrit and Miriam’s sister and brother and their families. I was professor of art and Jewish thought at Ariel University. Miriam had time to spend with her mother in her 90’s who drove her red Volvo to Petah Tikva from Herzliya several times a week.
Ron, a rabbi and scientist, was married, living with his wife and children in the Yeroham house (#10) that we lived in decades before. Moshe served in the Israel Defense Forces, studied in yeshivas, earned his BA and MA as valedictorian, and taught at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. Iyrit had four children and two grandchildren and is a life coach. Ari and Julie stayed in the States where he was a high-tech entrepreneur and director of the Israel Action Center in Boston. When our Boston-born granddaughter Talia turned 18, she come to Israel and served as a shooting instructor in the IDF’s Golani combat unit.
Four years ago, Miriam and I moved to a retirement community in Ra’anana (#17) a few blocks away from our first home in Israel in 1969. We are working on writing a joint memoir focusing on our life in education and art.