I was in fact blogging at this age, but that site is long gone now, even to the Wayback Machine. I know I blogged about politics a lot, and that I wrote overwrought poetry which I posted on DeviantArt. I hated the boyband craze and was mainly into the Beatles (it doesn’t count if the boyband is 35 years old, naturally), Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, old shit like that. I liked downloading punk on Napster because the shorter song length meant I was more likely to get my music faster—we were on dial-up, of course. I was really obnoxious.
18 was a great year! In Ontario at the time, high school students had the option of doing a fifth year (called OAC). Because OAC students were 18, we had the privilege of writing our own sick notes, even right in front of the teacher. We also had more independence and academic freedom—the idea was to provide a transition to university-style learning. So I got to develop a much closer and more adult relationship with my favourite teachers, and also work less.
So I would have been blogging about spending May afternoons wandering around the city with my best friend, my ruinous crush on said best friend, my explorations of paganism with my other BFF, being the first out gay student at my school. I was obsessed with Wittgenstein, Latin, Sappho, and my own sexuality. I went to Toronto without adult supervision. Crushfriend and I watched Where the Heart Is in theatre at least three times, because Natalie Portman and because it was the only movie playing in town. (The theatre only had one screen.)
According to the archaeological record, I was blogging about:
The World’s Oldest Crown
The crown was discovered in a remote cave in the Judaean Desert near the Dead Sea in 1961 among hundreds of other objects from the period. Known as the ‘Nahal Mishar Hoard’, more than 400 objects were discovered by Pessah Bar-Adon and his fellow Israeli archaeologists in the cave which became known as the ‘Cave of the Treasure’. The ancient relic, which dates back to the Copper Age between 4000–3300 B.C., is shaped like a thick ring and features vultures and doors protruding from the top. It is believed the crown played a part in burial ceremonies for people of importance at the time.
I can actually check the historical record on this one! According to my Livejournal, here are some things I blogged about when I was 22 in the year 2004/2005.
That was what it was like for me to be 22!
When I was 11 I would have blogged about:
Welcome to the Forest of Sadness.
That’s the last stop recorded in the Sinai travel itinerary. This week’s parsha is called Masei - literally, “journeys” - and it begins by listing the forty-two places where the Children of Israel camped during their trek through the desert.
We are at the end of the Book of Numbers, the forty years of wandering is almost over. And just before the Torah begins to map out plans to cross over into the Land of Israel, we are given a chance to pause and look back at where we’ve been. These place names form a kind of tour through our collective memory, each coordinate recalling a familiar episode in this nomadic period of our national history.
Until suddenly we come ominously into the Forest of Sadness. We’ve never seen this name before. What is this strange place? And what pain does it hold in the shadows of its trees?
The name in Hebrew is Avel Sheetim (אבל שטים), and it is often translated as something like “The Meadow of Sheetim.” But the words literally mean: “The Mourning (avel) at the Acacia Trees (sheetim).” Now, this is apparently the same place that was mentioned earlier, at the beginning of Chapter 25. But there it was just called Sheetim - Acacias. Why is it suddenly prefaced with this extra word, Avel, which has such distinct overtones of grief?
Well, the Midrash Tanchuma takes us back there to Chapter 25, to a scene where the Israelites were “whoring with the Moabites” and “worshipping their God”, and keenly reminds us that in verse 6 of that chapter it says that:
The whole Israelite community were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.
So there was, explicitly, a sadness over there by the Acacias! What was it about? And why specifically mention it now, 8 chapters later? The midrash answers:
Why were they crying? Because it was at that point that they dropped their hands in despair. What was this like? It was like a princess who is all dressed up in her bridal gown, with her chariot awaiting to take her to the wedding… when suddenly she is discovered sleeping with another man! Her parents and relatives would drop their hands in despair. So it was with Israel, that at the end of forty years, they were camped on the banks of the Jordan, ready to cross over into Israel - as it says, “And they camped on the Jordan, from Bet-yeshimot up to Avel Sheetim…" - when suddenly, they broke out in mass orgies. Then Moses and the righteous dropped their hands in despair.
So close! Here they were, at the very last stop before crossing over. The promised land is within sight. But they just couldn’t keep it together.
Sometimes, the midrash suggests, people are like that. They love someone deeply, and they want so badly to be faithful and true. But at the very last minute, on the night before their wedding, somehow the pressure is too much. And in a fit of nervous energy they go out and do something stupid and ruin everything. As if they were deliberately sabotaging their own happiness.
It’s so pathetic, so hard to watch. All Moses - our “best man” - can do at this point is throw down his hands and cry.
Or… maybe he was crying for a different reason.
Don Isaac Abrabanel was a Portuguese statesman and philosopher who also managed to be one of the greatest medieval Biblical commentators, and he offers a penetrating analysis of Moses’ psychology at this moment. It’s a beautiful piece, worth quoting in full. He picks up, again, right at this strange name that ends the list of places in our parsha:
When Moses had finished writing down all of the journeys, from the day they left Egypt until they came to the Plains of Moab on the banks of the Jordan in Jericho, he remembered that God had said to him, “you will not cross the Jordan.” He saw that his days of reckoning and his end had come, and that this is where he would no doubt die.
So he made a sign for himself from the name of that place, and called it “Avel-Sheetim,” the Mourning of the Acacias, for this is where they would mourn his death.
And because of this, he worried and was very sad, and said, “I toiled, but rest I never found. I took this people out of Egypt, and I led them through the desert for forty years, to bring them into the promised land. And I then came to the bank of the Jordan, but I was not allowed to cross over and deliver it to my people.
Instead, another man will prepare it and deliver it to them. It was I who planted the fig tree, but I will not eat its fruit. Joshua, my attendant, will eat it, and the Land will be remembered for him. For he will conquer it and deliver it to Israel. And my name will never be mentioned again.”
And because of this, his heart twisted inside of him, and all of his bones trembled.
Poor Moses. He wasn’t crying for us. He was crying for himself.
Here he had led a revolution, delivered a revelation, and defended against constant rebellion. Sometimes he defended us before God. Sometimes he defended God before us. Always his job was hard. But he devoted his whole self to it. Devoted his whole life to it.
Yet for one mistake, for losing his temper in one moment, God took from Moses the only thing that would have made it all worthwhile: the chance to finish the journey. The man who made the return to the homeland possible will die on the other side of the river.
It does seem unfair. Not just to Moses, but to any reader who has been following along with this story. It is one of the most tragic things in the whole Torah. This is a sadness we can share with Moses.
But if that were not enough, Abrabanel is also describing an even greater sadness. His Moses is so overcome with bitterness and grief that he begins to lose his grip on reality. He becomes convinced that not only will he die - he will be forgotten. How could he think such a thing?! The leader, the prophet, the national hero? Could he really believe that when he’s gone, no one will remember his name?
Only a man consumed by a massive, all-consuming, terrible sadness could entertain such a delusional thought. This is a great sadness indeed. This is the kind of sadness that deserves to have a whole forest named for it.
Oh God, what will You do? Will You leave Moses in the forest all alone?
Abrabanel actually has an answer to that question, and his answer also explains the rest of our parsha. Because immediately after the opening list of places, the parsha moves on to: the commandment of settling the land and ridding it of idolatry; the mapping of its borders; the division of the land amongst the tribes; and the establishment of special garrison cities for Levites and for criminal refugees.
Why command all these things right now, Abrabanel asks? Why not either give these laws earlier, along with all the other laws at Mount Sinai, or later, when Joshua actually takes them into the land and all these things issues become relevant?
The answer, he says, is that all of this is mentioned right after Moses names the Forest of Sadness, specifically “in order to comfort Moses, and to speak to his heart." God has heard Moses crying, heard his fear of being forgotten, and so God says: Look, take these things, command them to the people, and then you will always be remembered for them. Even when they leave you behind, they will take your words with them, and through these commandments, it is as if you will live on in the Land. "And with this,” Abrabanel concludes, “your mind will be at peace, just as if you had crossed over and done this all yourself.”
I imagine that if Moshe did find this peace, it was above all through the detailed mapping of the land given in our parsha, which seems at first so unnecessary. I’d like to think that this map is here because God said to Moses, “You want to see the Promised Land? Close your eyes. I’ll describe it to you. Put your hand in Mine, I’ll trace out the shape for you.”
I hope that when Moses spoke out the borders of the Land to the Children of Israel, in his mind, he was already there - flying above, surveying every hill and valley, from north to south. I hope it felt so real, it was just as good as actually being there.
I hope Moses found a way out of the forest. I hope he made it home.