By three things was the Torah given: by fire, water and wilderness. By fire, as it is written (Exodus 19:18): “Now Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because G‑d descended upon it in fire.” By water, as it is written (Judges 4:4): “The heavens also dripped, yes, the clouds dripped water.” And by wilderness, as it is written (Numbers 1:1): “G‑d spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai.” (Midrash Rabbah)
In this week’s double parashah we wind up the Book of BaMidbar. The word bamidbar, actually three in English, is usually translated “in the wilderness”. But the root word, dalet bet reysh, can as easily be understood as “speaking”. Our ancestors wandered across a land that was unsettled, and that they saw as chaotic and uncontrollable. We, similarly, wander in a wilderness of words. They come at us from so many directions, and so many sources: media, social media, neighbors, friends, family, community, books, and, of course, from the inside of our own heads. Uncontrollable, and often chaotic in their impact upon us.
In parashat Masei, “journeys”, the Torah recounts every stop our ancstors made on their trek from Egypt to the Land of Israel. Similarly, every community that shares a sense of common purpose may be lucky enough for its members to feel that they are going somewhere, toward some vision of a promise of an endpoint. And for every community, no doubt, the story that is told afterward makes sense of what may feel at the lived moment very much like trackless chaos. No doubt there were many days of confusion along the way, even though now the Torah simply lists each campsite, so calmly that it seems boring.
What were the Civil Rights days of the 1960s like? We look back now and see a narrative, or more than one, and it seems that people must have been so clear about their vision, so much so that one expects to actually see a path open up under their feet as they progress toward Equal Rights goals more visible now, even if not yet achieved. But what was that time really like? no doubt, there was chaos, and a sense of trackless wilderness. It is only afterward that we can see where we were, as we tell the story.
As we tell the story, we give it meaning by the way we tell it, with the perspective we gain from the struggle on the way, but only after it is over, and the dust has settled, as we can see again. Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav taught that we, each of us, is a portrait that is finished only on our last day of life; only then do we see what we have created.
We don’t know the end of the story through which we are living now. We don’t know the meaning of the Jewish story of transition from the Rabbinic Era to whatever we’re entering now in our time. We can’t know the outcome of the Civil Rights Struggle of our day, or even the election cycle only a few months from now. And we are not privy to the Omniscient Narrator perspective on the Land and State of Israel. In all these cases, the final outcome is unknown, because we are still shaping the portrait through our choices.
We can only hope and pray to be as mindful and intentional as we can, with each other’s help, and to remember that each of our acts toward the good is needed. While we are wandering in a chaos of confusing and painful social change, which for many of us is accompanied by religious alienation and economic struggle, let’s try, as it is said in the Black struggle for Civil Rights, to keep our eyes on the Prize. And as Jews put it, to take care that each step carries us closer to the vision that we call Yerushalayim Shel Ma’alah, “the Ideal Jerusalem”. Keep kindness in your mind and your heart always.
We finish this book of the Torah the way we always do: with hazak, hazak, v’nithazek, “be strong, and of good courage, and let us strengthen each other”.
The very first lines of Pirke Avot, a famous collection of Rabbinic 1st-century ethical “sayings of the ancestors”, goes like this:
Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua;
Joshua to the elders;
the elders to the prophets;
and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly.
– Pirke Avot 1.1
The question is, what exactly is that Torah? A close reading of the Scriptures itself indicates that what Moshe received and what he passed on were not identical. We see this in several instances in which Moshe has to consult G-d for guidance, even after the Torah, with all its laws, is given. And Moshe also “edits” G-d’s directions (which is what Torah literally is, the word “Torah” being Hebrew for “direction”); as the people prepare to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai, described in Exodus, we see him explicitly doing so:
HaShem said unto Moshe: ‘Go unto the people, and sanctify them to-day and to-morrow, and let them wash their garments, and be ready for the third day; for on the third day HaShem will come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai. … And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their garments. And he said unto the people: ‘Be ready for the third day; do not come near a woman.’ (Exodus 19.10-15)
If Moshe transmits Torah with interpretation at the moment at which Torah is transmitted, then it seems clear that Torah is understood to be something more than the five written books that we revere as key to the meaning of Jewish life in all ages. It’s the “all ages” part that we should note. As our friends in the UCC church put it, “G-d is still speaking,”
Torah means “direction”. We are directed upon a path, in Hebrew halakhah. The meaning of our progress upon that path is always being interpreted; we, directed by the Torah sheh-b’khtav, Written Torah, are constantly accompanied by the Oral Torah, Torah sheh-b’al peh. Moshe invented it at the moment that he interpreted G-d’s directions for getting ready to receive Torah. And this process of interpretation, of making what we should do clear to us at every moment, must continue as it always has, because otherwise Torah would no longer direct us in our lives as they are now. Life keeps changing. Teachers keep unveiling new levels of understanding implicit in Torah. They were always there, just as the petals of a rose were always there in the tightly closed bud: under the light of sun and warmth, the rose unfurls new beauty, and with the light of interpretation and commentary, Torah does the same.
This is why we need not be irritated by the specifics of Moshe’s interpretation. It must have been necessary at that time, in that place. But Torah continues to unfurl. We are not limited by its shape in earlier days; rather, we are all gardeners, invited to help to bring Torah into the 21st century more fully – more open, more relevant, more amazing in the learning we can do and the depths of human spiritual experience we can reach.
BaMidbar, our parashat hashavua, means “in the wilderness”, and indeed we often find ourselves wandering, wondering where to find direction along our path. At the close of this Shabbat we’ll have a chance to review the path, the direction, and the gift as the Festival of Shavuot begins. According to Jewish tradition, we confirm our acceptance of Torah every year on Shavuot, and in some ways, every time we recite the blessing for Torah. What is this Torah we receive? What does it mean for us?
May we each find our own personal blessing in Torah’s direction, as well as that of our community and our people, so that we can join the Psalmist in declaring that “these words are a light for my eyes, a lamp for my feet.” (Psalm 119.105)