Passover Village and My Levite-ness
A blog entry from Bill Finn (this and other offerings fro Bill can be found at (http://unorthodoxtorah.wordpress.com/2013/05/07/1260/#more-1260)
“In this physical world, they serve the invisible”
In the spring of 2013, Linda and I ventured into Joshua Tree. It was our third year at Passover Village. A bunch of people go camp in the desert and do Seder. The first year we enjoyed ourselves immensely. Wonderful people and beautiful desert. The second year was calamitous. A never ending wind destroyed my tent and made us sick. I was anxious. What would our third year be like?
Our first day at the campsite went pretty much as expected. After packing and driving for hours in the morning, we arrived at Joshua Tree. Once we scouted out a campsite, we hauled bedding, firewood, food, cooking utensils, a propane stove, as well as an ice chest full of food and medicine.
And 15 gallons of water. Every minute, for the entire 4 arid days I was there, I was either drinking water or carrying a bottle of water someplace.
We also carried two shelters: a tent for sleeping and a free-standing shade that we usually use for our car. Once our kitchen, chairs, emergency supplies, shade, and sleeping space were set-up, we nailed tarps to the ground for a clean dressing area. We unpacked warm clothes and flashlights for when it was dark and cold; hats, light clothes, umbrellas, and sunscreen lotion for when it was hot and sunny.
Linda and I are many things, but we are not light campers.
Sometime during the afternoon of the first day, we had reached a point when we could relax. Our essential survival needs were taken care of. I sat down on a chair by my tent, too exhausted to move. Our tent was nestled at the foot of a small steep mountain that was covered with huge round boulders.
Above the mountain, a large high-altitude ice cloud floated. Illuminated by the setting sun, it glowed with a variety of neon colors. The mountains hid in dark adobe shadows. It took me a while to realize that the stones of the earth and the radiant cloud actually shared the same color palette.
When the ice cloud grew and spread its wings like a bird, I thought of eagles.
A few months earlier I had seen a video about the band Eagles. Early in the band’s history, sometime in the wee hours of a morning, after they had finished a music set, they decided to head out to Joshua Tree, with nothing but, “peyote, tequila, and a bag of trail mix.” It says a lot about the zeitgeist of that era, that a group of adults thought this qualified as a “good idea.”
Once in Joshua Tree, they built a fire and sat around. To their astonishment, they saw an actual eagle, the namesake of their band, and their presumed totem. One of the band members was taking a dump in the desert, and pulling up his pants when he saw the lordly eagle. To him, the soaring raptor was disdainful and mocking. The musician fantasized the lofty, magnificent eagle sneering, “Huh, you guys are eagles? Right.”
They had gone out into the desert on a vision quest. The message they received was one of awe and humility. That seems to me a pretty legitimate message.
Now, here I was sitting in Joshua Tree, looking at a magnificent entity in the sky. I had come to the desert and had seen my eagle.
It was above me in every sense of the word, floating through levels too rarefied to support a mundane creature, such as myself. Without a thought, it rendered all around it into insignificance. I felt that I was in the presence of an immense being that was way beyond my personal self in size, scope, and beauty.
Like the eagle, the solitary ice cloud existed at levels beyond my comprehension.
I thought of the conflict that I had seen between the life of the spirit and the demands of the physical world. So many people struggle to be as high as the cloud, but are dragged down to earth. The few that succeed, pay a price. The eagle flies high, but he flies alone.
Not bad, I thought. I have been at Joshua Tree for only a few hours and, already I had a revelation. That night, I lay on my back for hours, watching the full moon transit across the width of my tent’s doorway.
My third year at Passover Village was off to a good start.
The theme of this year was tribes. We had spent the entire year studying the various tribes of Israel. We were asked to pick a tribe and represent it at the Village.
For me, there was never any question about my choice of tribe. Unlike many Jews, I actually know what my tribe is. I do not recall when my father told me that we were Levites, but it was sometime when I was very young.
These days there isn’t much to being a Levite. I get called second to read at the Torah. Twice a year at the western Wall, Cohens say a blessing for the nations. Levites, such as myself gather at the washing stations in the plaza and wash the hands of the Cohens.
I did this when I lived in Israel. It is not a particularly dignified experience. The Levites shout “Bo Cohaneem!” (Come Cohens) like vegetable sellers shouting “tomatoes!” in a shuk (marketplace).
Genetic research has demonstrated a Cohen gene. It is amazingly persistent, occurring in Jewish communities located in areas as diverse as Africa, Asia, and Europe. As we stood around the washing station in the Western Wall plaza, I gazed at my fellow Levites, and wondered if we too shared a mutual gene. I knew a few of them personally and definitely saw commonalities. For one thing, we were all wise guys, smart alecks, the kind of guy who would interrupt you telling a joke, because he already knew it and could tell it better.
Over the years, I have linked a few of my personal traits to my Levite-ness. Explaining my quirks through my Levite-ness is not rational. However, I do not see it as less valid than an astrology sign, or even a psychological profile.
As befits someone who is descended from temple servants, I frequently ended up in supportive positions for rabbis. For example, in the 1980’s, I met Daniel Lev in jail, while we were protesting Diablo Nuclear Power Station. Daniel told everyone that he was Abraham Herschel and needed to do a Rosh Hashanah service.
I moved heaven and earth to get that service together, not a simple task when incarcerated. After monumental efforts, we succeeded and arranged for a service. Although, I enthusiastically helped Daniel with preparations, I was indifferent to the actual service itself. This experience of spontaneously assisting a spiritual leader is fairly typical for me.
Another trait that I associate with my Levite-ness is my ability to move stuff. Levites carried the ark through the desert. When I was younger I was a world-class shleper. Once, when I was a chiropractor, working for another chiropractor at a new office, I became impatient with waiting for workmen to move some furniture. Without a thought, I moved large desks, treatment tables, and filing cabinets through narrow hallways into tiny rooms. My boss and the chief admin came into the office and stared at me in disbelief. “You did that by yourself?” they asked. I was astonished by their astonishment. To me, it seemed easy.
Levites were also guards. Some part of me, especially at night, is always on the lookout, always listening. When I lie down at the end of the day to go to sleep, my hearing becomes acute; I hear the hums of electronics, as well as the ticking of a clock in nearby rooms. If a dog is barking anywhere within several blocks, I don’t fall asleep. Once, I was woken up by a ringing telephone, which in and by itself isn’t unusual. However, this telephone was located several houses down the street.
I had not expected to learn anything about my Levite-ness at Passover Village. For one thing, I was spending most of my energy on basic camping survival tasks. For another, it seemed irrelevant to the challenges of my everyday life.
To my surprise, while at Passover Village, I discovered another Levite part of myself. A personal trait that has puzzled me can be explained by characteristics of my tribe.
I found time to read The Twelve Dimensions of Israel by Nechama Sarah G. Nadborny. The book looks at the “deepest meanings of the twelve tribes of Israel.”
As I mentioned before, one of the significant mitzvahs of the Levites was the carrying of the Ark through the desert. Nadborny’s book explained that the Cohens fashioned the contents of the Ark, but the Levites never saw inside it. In this physical world, they serve the invisible.
In fact, the invisible is clear to Levites. When others are lead astray, they remained steadfast, their vision fixed on the truth of hidden holiness.
It has always been simple for me to see beneath the surface, but what is obvious for most people eludes my understanding. One intuitive person called me a klutz, because I always stumble through the clearly visible, while my perception is focused on the unseen.
The Twelve Dimensions of Israel still had more to teach me. About a third of the Levites guarded the king. Another third served the Temple, and a many of them were soldiers. So, most Levites lived in Jerusalem.
It makes sense that Levites occupied the heart of the country, since “Lev” is Hebrew for heart. Marc, our leader, pointed out that the Hebrew word for heart is spelled differently that the one for Levite. “Lev” uses a bet, while “Levite” ends with a vuv. The root of “Levite” is often described as “joining’ or “alongside.” This reflects the brotherly affection that the Levites had for the Cohens whom they help. Marc and I decided that vuv, which is a traditional sign of connection between the higher worlds and the lower ones, is an appropriate letter for Levites. Levites worked to connect the hearts of the people.
The remaining third of Levites who did not live in Jerusalem, were dispersed throughout the country. The directions associated with the Levites are the “center” (2/3 were located in Jerusalem) and “everywhere,” i.e. scattered throughout the land.
Why did Levites live among all the tribes? To keep an eye on them. Levites were the snitches, and the enforcers. As pointed out above, a very high proportion of Levites in Jerusalem were soldiers.
Levites were a violent tribe. When someone needed to be killed, they did it. Heck, even when someone didn’t need to be killed, they still did it.
The dark side of having a clear vision of holiness is unrelenting and uncompromising fanaticism. This is an aspect of Levite-ness with which I do not identify. Indeed, my entire life I have been repelled by religious extremism, violence, and militarism.
While I was processing this upsetting information, I had physical work to do. Marc took my Levite-ness seriously, and that meant assisting him with decorating the sanctuary.
At one point, several people and I carried and arranged rocks in the middle of the gathering tent. Each stone represented a tribe. Appropriately, the Levite rock occupied the center in a circle of stones.
Every once in a while, someone would move the Levite stone, and substitute candles, a figurine, or some kind of decoration. These minor changes in adornment usually looked pretty good.
However, I noticed something about myself. Every time someone moved the Levite rock, it REALLY, REALLY bothered me. I mention this to my wife, Linda, who laughed, and said such changes were temporary.
I objected. “Moving the stone gives Israel a heart attack! It’s moving the heart from the center! It violates the natural order of things!”
Except for this one conversation with my wife, I kept silent about my growing indignation. Finally, at the closing circle, I expressed my outrage about the displacement of the Levite stone. Like my wife, the Passover Village participants thought this was funny.
I had begun my third year of Passover Village anxious about the outcome. Would it be wonderful like the first year or calamitous like the second? Instead, something quite unexpected happened; I got in touch with my inner religious extremist.