Shabbat BaMidbar and Shavuot 5778: Into The Wilderness

Our parashat hashavua is called after the name of the book it opens, BaMidbar, “in the wilderness.” The first verse is both simple and completely mysterious:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי G‑d spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai (1:1)
This is the Shabbat before Shavuot, the Festival on which we commemorate the day when the people of Israel stood in G*d’s presence and received from that moment the heart of the Torah, the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Words. I invite you to join me in considering that simple, and profound, idea.
First: “G*d spoke to Moshe.” what does it mean to say that G*d spoke?
 
Second: a human being, Moshe, experiences a sense of connection with G*d. We are so used to it in the Torah that we read blithely over it, looking for the action, forgetting as we humans do to be awed by the thought of what it means to be in the Presence of G*d. 
 
Third: what is the content of the davar, the word that G*d speaks? In Jewish tradition, that content is Torah, writ large: our tradition considers all learning that leads to spiritual wholeness to be Torah, not just the five books we keep in a sacred scroll.
Ancient wisdom tells us plainly that such Torah is not heard, or received, easily. We don’t get it on the couch watching television, nor even simply hiking through the woods. It comes when we know that we are standing in the Presence.
 

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)

Fire – This morning I as you awoke to the news of another school shooting. As I write, the news is that ten human lives have been violently ended by gunfire in Santa Fe High School outside of Galveston Texas. This is the twenty-second school shooting since the beginning of 2018, an average of more than one per week. And our hearts are heavy for the violent deaths of all those caught up in violence everywhere: Palestinians in Gaza, Arabs in Syria, Rohingya in Myanmar, African Americans in the United States.
What Torah must we learn by this fire?
Water – The arrogance of modernity caused us to dismiss ancient warnings that link our social ethics to our ability to thrive on the earth; one prominent example is that second paragraph of the Shema: “Take care, lest you become confused and turn away and serve other gods, and HaShem become angry and shut up the the heavens so that there will be no rain, and the ground shall not yield to you, and you will perish.” (Deut.11.16-17) But today we see a divine anger – the earth’s righteous anger, which is just another way of knowing HaShem – expressed in the climate change that we have brought upon ourselves through turning away to worship the gods of convenience, of wealth and power.
What Torah must we learn by this water?
Our Torah was given in the wilderness, we are told; wilderness, chaotic and unsettled, unknown and undefined. We do not receive it in the comfort of our convictions and in the safety of our agreements, but only in the chaos and uncertainty of learning and spiritual growth.
What Torah must we learn in this wilderness?
On this Shabbat in the wilderness, on this Shavuot that commemorates awareness of the Presence found only within that wilderness, may our fear and sadness and anger lead not to despair but to an active desire to brave the uncertainty and plunge in to the unknown, that we might be in the Presence, that we might know the Awe, that we might seek the davar, the Word that heals and helps us to learn, and helps us to do.
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Shabbat Matot-Masei: the Long, Confusing, Chaotic Road to Freedom

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”.

Shabbat BaMidbar, erev Shavuot: What Is This Torah That We Receive?

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)