D'var Bamidbar 2008
I stuck it in a light socket. 5 times. In a row.
Now that I have your attention…
The episode I’m speaking about occurred just after my 13th birthday. With some of my Bar Mitzvah money, I had gotten one of those soda-pop-can light thingies, complete with the black light bulb with the flickering filament. It was awesome. For about 10 minutes, and then I got bored and curious. One thing led to another, and I decided to find out what happened when you touched the inside of the socket. 5 experiments later I had a pretty good understanding, along with a violent tingling sensation up my right arm.
It was a rebellious, exploratory, stubborn, naieve and intrinsically inquisitve act. I went against every warning I had received from any authority figure in my life. I ignored any resource at my disposal to perhaps ask what the consequences might be. I was going to do it my way. Zzzzzzap!
That moment remains with me 28 years later. I reflect on whether I have really changed all that much. I’m sharing it with you by way of explaining that the stories in Bamidbar seem very familiar to me. The raw passion, lack of restraint, high drama and belief in the possibility of all things.
As in my life (and maybe yours too), all those forces crash together in the Bamidbar narrative and often end up in spectacular failure. Those failures lead to important lessons, and things come out mostly OK in the end. By the beginning of Devarim, the Israelites may be a little worse for the wear, but they are infinitely wiser.
There’s the spy fiasco which leads to our 40 year detour. Korach demands to know why we all can’t be like Moses. Donkeys rebuke their masters. Angels with flaming swords threatening pagan prophets. Pinchas takes matters (and a spear) into his own hands. Even Moses himself gets caught up in the rebellion, hitting the rock instead of speaking to it to draw forth water. After receiving his consequence, you can almost imagine him muttering under his breath “the last time we were here you TOLD me to hit the rock. What’s the big diff anyway? I am so totally not a mindreader!”
I love Bamidbar because there is so much that we can learn between the lines. The Israelites spend forty years wandering — forty, a number that in the rabbinic imagination signified the time it takes to fully complete a transition. Freed from Egypt in Shemot, having received all the laws in Vayikra, we needed time to learn a new way of being.
Weren’t the miracles in Egypt, not to mention the daily Presence of God among the camp, enough to drive the Laws home? Bamidbar reminds us that change can be hard, whether we are moving through adolescence or middle age; moving to a healthier place after a crisis of faith or relationship; or leaving the stagnation of old habits that are no longer useful (if they ever were).
People who look at this section of Torah and dismiss the Israelites as a bunch of ungrateful, whiney, short-sighted nincompoops (not that I would ever have said such a thing!) miss the chance to ask a deeper question. Presume for a moment that they are reasonable and rational people, very much like you and I. And despite the immediate presence of the Holy, along with instruction that was clear and concise, they still couldn’t see the blessings for the desert. What does that teach us about compassion for people in the midst of change? Our kids, our coworkers, our neighbors and friends. Not to mention compassion for ourselves? Torah shouts out at me: The Israelites had all that going for them and it was STILL difficult. Cut everyone some slack!
Like the Israelites, we don’t always know where we’re going, nor how long it will take us to get there. Unlike the Israelites, we don’t have clear signs when it’s time to pick up and move – physically, emotionally or intellectually.
It’s difficult not to be jealous, or at least whistful in a whiney kind of way. Once upon a time we saw the Divine in a cloud of smoke and a pillar of fire. The blare of the shofar was the sign that it was time to move on. Spiritual sustenence fell from the heavens every day, and the mystical well of a prophetess followed us as we moved. A man whose face radiated the reflected glory of Hashem’s might walked among us. I think about that, and I’m covetous. As difficult as their life was, it’s hard not to wish to be in their miraculous everlasting sandals.
Rachel Barenblat, known in the blogosphere as “The Velveteen Rabbi” writes: “It’s easy to look back at the past chronicled in Torah and to wish for the kind of tangible relationship with God our ancestors knew. To long for a cloud of smoke and fire to lead us in our wandering through the wilderness of modern life. But I think that’s an impulse we need to resist. When the ancient Israelites looked back longingly at the bread and meat of Egypt, their rearview-mirror mindset blinded them to the wonder of the manna falling from heaven. When we wish for what was, we risk losing sight of what is – and we do a disservice to the way God is manifesting in our lives right now.”
In adolescence we may cling to our desire for once up on a time time. But in adulthood we know that the only time which matters is “now”.
Today we connect with God through prayer. We build a home for the Hashem with the everyday actions of our lives. We learn to sense God in the passage of time. Sometimes the voice of God is only audible when we make space, just as God withdrew to make space for creation. Our connection today is more portable than ever: not a desert-bound landline but a cellphone with Hashem on speed dial. Any time I wrap myself in my tallit or just get wrapped up in tefillah, or make a bracha, my connection with God hums to life. Even in diaspora, even as a Jew who isn’t sure whether to sit or stand during the kaddish, I am learning that Heaven is still a local call.
Here’s my last thought: In Bamidbar – the portion, not the book – we are told how to make holiness portable. We double wrap it – first in cloth, then in leather. The cloth – Torah uses the word b’gadim, which means “clothes” like people wear – is to be of the purest colors. Not white or black, but vibrant crimson, blue and violet. The leather provides a flexible but protective outter layer to ensure everything arrives in tact. The pshat and metaphorical d’var come together nicely here: take the holiest that you possess – perhaps your holiest self – and dress it in your truest colors. Don’t save those colors for some future someday. Wear those colors every time you go out, whenever you move from place to place. And take care to protect it so that it isn’t damaged in the journey. Be true. Live fully.