Where have we been and where are we going? Though we are just beginning the month of Av, these are questions we shall be asking ourselves a month from now when we enter Elul and begin our spiritual preparation for the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days.
Masei, the second of the two portions we read this Shabbat, begins by recounting all the journeys traveled by our Israelite ancestors who left Egypt. Masei is the concluding portion of Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. Our ancestors are about to enter the land promised to Israel. That is where they are going. But Moses reminds them where they have been.
Rashi asks why all these journeys were recorded. He cites a homily found in Midrash Tanchuma. “It is analogous to a king whose son became sick, so he took him to a faraway place to have him healed. On the way back, the father began citing all the stages of their journey saying to him, ‘This is where we sat, here we were cold, here you had a headache, etc.’” So, in this way, R. Tanchuma suggests that sometimes people need to be reminded how far they have come.
And where are we going? Moshe Chaim of Sudlikov, in his Degel Machaneh Ephraim, teaches something he had heard, attributed to his grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov. “The 42 journeys of the Israelites are to be found in every person, from the day of his birth until the day of his death” Expounding further, “Each person’s birth should be understood within the context of the Exodus from Egypt, and the subsequent stages of life are journeys that lead from place to place until one comes to the land of the ‘supernal world of life.’”
This theme is explored in a poem by Rabbi Alvin Fine, of blessed memory. It begins, “Birth is a beginning, / And death a destination; / But life is a journey.” He then recounts the journey through the stages of life, learning, love and loss. It is a poem that has spread from Reform Jewish circles on through the wider Jewish world and beyond.
More people have heard the poem than know who the poet was. More have read it and know the name of the poet, but do not know much about him. But when you know his life story you understand how he came to write this beloved poem.
Alvin Fine was born in Portland, Oregon, on October 25, 1916. He was ordained as a Reform rabbi by Hebrew Union College in 1943. Rabbi Fine then went to Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, Delaware, whose rabbi had just entered the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps. Not long after, Rabbi Fine, too, became an Army Chaplain, as so many rabbis of that generation — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — volunteered for the Army and Navy Chaplain Corps during World War II. And, like so many, Chaplain Fine served overseas.
Alvin Fine served for 27 months with the U.S. Army in China, and was awarded a Bronze Star. One can only wonder what he observed as American and Chinese forces fought those of Japan.
At the war’s end, in September, 1945, he was sent to Shanghai as the Army’s liaison to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which worked with numerous agencies to assist refugees and displaced persons. Among these was the Joint Distribution Committee. And so, Chaplain Fine began working to assist the many European Jews who were lucky enough to escape the Nazis and make their way to Shanghai. While they survived, they endured hardship there during the Japanese military occupation.
In a report to the Joint Distribution Committee, Rabbi Fine wrote of overcrowded housing conditions, public health and medical needs, and economic issues. As most of the Jewish refugees were of German or Austrian origin, the Chinese government had classified them as enemy nationals; hence, they were not allowed to pursue their trades or professions. Thus, there was widespread poverty. Rabbi Fine concluded that their only hope was emigration to the U.S., Australia, Canada, or Palestine. But, he also reported on the opening of a rest center for the aged, establishment of a hospital, and schools, where the children were learning Hebrew and English. He also reported that many young Jewish men and women were being employed by the American occupying forces. Moreover, Jewish soldiers stationed in Shanghai “befriended the refugees, arranged parties for the children, put on shows for them and brought them the first cheer they had known in a decade.” And, he added, “I performed three marriages … between American soldiers and refugee girls.”
Rabbi Fine came home from China in 1946. In 1948, he became the Rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. He was a Zionist who brought harmony to a congregation whose members were divided in their attitudes toward the newly founded State of Israel. He spoke out against Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his witch hunts. He spoke at the funeral of Chief Justice Earl Warren. An active supporter of civil rights, he invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak at the Temple. As a young woman, Maya Angelou, exploring religious faith, came to speak to Rabbi Fine.
In 1964, Rabbi Fine suffered a mild heart attack. There is a line in his poem: “From health to sickness / And back, we pray, to / health again.” He decided to leave the pulpit and make a change in his life. He thought he should pursue something less stressful and less demanding than being the rabbi of a large urban congregation. So he became a professor of humanities at San Francisco State University, where he would teach for the next 15 years.
“From loneliness to love.” He and his wife, Elizabeth, raised their son and two daughters, saw each of them marry, and enjoyed their grandchildren. His beloved wife, Elizabeth, died in 1973. “From pain to compassion, / And grief to understanding.”
Rabbi Alvin Fine died in January, 1999, at the age of 82. In an obituary, he was remembered by Rabbi Stephen Pearce as “a brilliant preacher” who “had a tremendous following” when he was Emanu-El’s rabbi. Cantor Joseph Portnoy recalled that he “had the ability to inspire and even mesmerize by the use of his poetic words, the strength of his voice and the sincerity with which he prepared his work.” Rabbi Pearce described him as “a real salt-of-the-earth kind of person, someone who knew no bounds in terms of his affection.”
“Birth is a beginning, / And death a destination; / But life is a journey, / A sacred pilgrimage / Made stage by stage – / From birth to death / To life everlasting.”
And so, as our ancestors continued on their journey, so do we continue our own. Life is a journey. May yours be filled with blessings.