As I am one semester away from the end of my rabbinical studies, I would like to keep on with a little tradition I have created at the beginning of my college years. It probably remained unnoticed but my Divrei Torah for the College always have something to do with rock’n’roll. And this trimester, I had no other choice but to pick up a beautiful song from the Doors which goes like this:
Before you slip into unconsciousness
I’d like to have another kiss
Another flashing chance at bliss
Another kiss, another kiss
The Crystal Ship might be the Door’s most beautiful song. Many critics have tried to come up with different kind of interpretations, but as always, it belongs to us listeners to let the music and verses echo within our minds. And, (at least in my mind), this week, it seems that a very strong parallel exists between our parashah, Rashi’s commentary and Jim Morrisson’s lyrics.
In the song, one can imagine the Crystal Ship, as the metaphor of a profound inner journey, away from pain and cries and the difficulties of every day life. And, in this week’s parashah, it is said that Moses, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu and the 70 elders of Israel also ascended to a very special and unique place. And once they did so, they acceded a blissful vision. A vision of the divine in which they saw under God’s feet : “the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.”. The vision is absolutely mind blowing. It is poetic, gracious, inspiring, dreamy.
“Oh tell me where your freedom lies”, sings the poet, and if we take a moment to think about it, we could ask: where did the biblical scene take place?
Moses and his special crew ascended, but it is not specified what they ascended. And even more curiously, three verses later, God tells Moses to come up to him on the mountain (Mount Sinai). Therefore, we can ask, is it possible that Moses and the rest of this special crew did not ascend Mount Sinai? Is it possible that their ascension took place within their minds?
Of course, I won’t be able to give a definitive answer to this question. The reason why is that I think that the mystery around this ascension is intended. We assume that they ascended Mount Sinai, but since Mount Sinai is not mentioned within this small group of verses, it is probably meant to tell us something. And if every word has a meaning in our precious Torah, when a word is absent, it is meaningful as well. It seems that the tension is intended. Thus, inspired by Jim Morrison’s words, we will explore the possibility assuming that the ascension was taking place inside our biblical characters’ minds.
And if this is where it happened, what if, for once, we were not commenting on those verses? And instead, why not look into our minds as well? We can look at the verse, and close our eyes, and let it speak to us. Let’s contemplate.
As Morrison saw the Crystal Ship sail away, our ancestors saw under God’s feet the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.
A pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity.
Like the very sky…
Let’s take the time to let each of these words speak to our mind’s eye. Let them draw pictures, forms, colours, sensations, feelings.
Words can be taken as limited microcosms, we know what they mean, but if we take them as doors leading to the power of the uniqueness of what is standing in front of us, we reach… The Ineffable.
And if the true essence of life is ineffable, the opposite of life, death, is just as affected by mystery.
And this is exactly what the Torah has in mind and what Rashi wants to remind us by quoting Midrash Tanhuma. For him, this is the information that should not be forgotten when reading this passage.
“They gazed intently and failing in this they peeped in their attempt to catch a glimpse of the Supreme Being, and thereby made themselves liable to death. But it was only because God did not wish to disturb the joy caused by the Giving of the Torah, that He did not punish them instantly, but waited (postponed the punishment)”
Because indeed, the beauty of this passage should not make us forget that looking at God leads one to a certain death. And somehow, by pure coincidence, by reminding us that Nadav and Avihu, and the 70 elders would die soon, something resonated with Jim Morrison’s poem: “I’d like to have another kiss”…
Vayamot Sham Moshe Eved-Adonai b’eretz Moav al pi Adonai (Deut. 34:5)
This is how Moses’ life ends, with a kiss. “And Moses, the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord” (some might translate), but literally, it looks like Moses died after a wonderful vision, the land of Israel, and right after it, receiving a “divine kiss”.
So, what is this saying?
All those beautiful words, the sapphires, the sky, the purity, what are they for? If seeing God leads to death, then why look for God? But then again, why is the Torah discouraging us to look for God while, at the same time, she is encouraging us to love God and live by God’s rules? Should we rather look for “profane” visions from pop culture?
Well, if we understand death literally, it certainly renders the project scary and we should go back to our vinyl records collection. But if we interpret those words as metaphors, we can try to replace looking at God by looking for being more intimate with God, imitate God, and embrace -as close as we can- God’s qualities and perfection. By doing so, reaching for the Source of All Lives, we cannot avoid being profoundly changed. Thus death does not stand for mortality anymore, but for this part of us that we are leaving behind, after reaching this moment of truth.
To conclude this journey with, no matter if we are into psychedelic Californian visions from the 60’s or Holy Biblical ones from thousands of years ago, whether we are looking for God or for comfort and beauty, no matter what, we should always remember that everything comes from the same Source and it leads us to the same Source.
If we are aware of it, once we come back, whether it is from an inner journey, Mount Sinai or a crystal ship cruise, whether we brought the divine law or a changed and more experienced (and possibly slightly better) version of ourselves, we should not forget to take a moment to stop, reflect, and “drop a line” about it. For our teacher Rabbi Larry Tabick once taught our class a lesson I won’t forget: “a true mystical experience is one that enhances our feeling of belonging to this world and universe”.
To all of you I wish a very warm Shabbat shalom and Hodesh Tov !
Etienne Kerber LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.