Shabbat BaMidbar: Wilderness of Doubt

שָׁל֨וֹם ׀ שָׁל֜וֹם לָרָח֧וֹק וְלַקָּר֛וֹב אָמַ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה וּרְפָאתִֽיו׃

peace, peace to the far and to the near – Isaiah 57.19 

This week our parashah records the beginning of the wandering of the Jewish people – for the Torah, the wandering lasted for 40 years, but in a real way, it has never ended. We wander in a wilderness of words, of beliefs, and – most of all – often of terrible, existential doubt.

Far from us, rockets rain down on Israelis and Palestinians alike this week, and we watch from afar, horrified at the senseless violence and the loss of precious lives.  All too often at a moment like this we see the terrible things human beings do to each other, and some of us may ask how G*d could allow such suffering.

Close to us, Israel is attacked in ways that sometimes veer from legitimate to antisemitic, undermining both our sense of loyalty to our Jewish community, and our ability to join with those we usually seek out to work together for justice. Must we be anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, to be good, ethical Jews?

From afar it may seem easy to see the path to peace: condemnation without nuance is the refuge of the exhausted, impatient, and ignorant. It’s the close up peace that is far more difficult to envision and to engage. When you know and love people it’s much harder to dismiss their feelings, their lives, their experiences.

The Jewish community is fortunate to have built-in resources for these moments. The only question is whether or not Jews will use them. Those resources are community connection and support, a tradition of learning which is fearless and compassionate, and an eternal injunction not to despair.

We, all of us who follow the Jewish path of meaning, are about to stand, once again, at Sinai.

Na’aseh v’nishmah, our ancestors proclaimed at Mt Sinai, that make-or-break moment of commitment to the spiritual path we still follow. “We will do and we will shema.” This singularly important word in our Jewish tradition, shema, should not be translated “hear” in a passive sense; our ancestors when they used it meant to listen, to pay attention, learn…and to obey the ethical impulse within and without.

Not to be passive, to obey, means to engage. To continue to learn, not to turn away and close our eyes: to pay attention to and defend those nuances where compassion and empathy still live.

The lesson of Sinai which we will contemplate on the Sunday night and Monday morning of Shavuot is that we must commit to continuing to learn, and to do. If there is anything that the last four years should have taught us, it is that as Jews (and those who love them, and walk that path with us) we are gifted with a strong prophetic ethical tradition. It supports us when we wander in doubt, by reminding us that doubt is not the enemy of truth, but that which clears away the dross that obscures it.

It’s not easy. We have learned in the past four years that antisemitism is real, and alive, and a vital link in the growth of white supremacy. 

It is not news to us who are students of modern Jewish history that criticism of Israel is often shaded with antisemitism. It is not an unfamiliar feeling to be uneasy, feeling caught between our ethics and the fact that we are sometimes cudgeled with them unethically.

On the mountain we are summoned:

“Choose life, if you would live, by dedicating yourself to Eternity, holding fast to that which is true and enduring.” – Devarim 30.19-20

In these final days of the Omer count,within the days of preparation for the holy day of Shavuot,

come and learn once again that we are partners with the Holy One in the ongoing work of creation. Rededicate yourself to mitzvot that keep you from wondering what you can do to assert and strengthen your choosing, ethical self. We don’t have answers, but we do have the ethical imperative to stay focused on the Image of the Divine within each human being – and that is already a profound response to suffering far from us, and that which is near.

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Further learning:

A remarkable teaching in the Babylonian Talmud (Nedarim 20a) reads: a person who has no shame, such a person’s ancestors did not stand at Sinai. I don’t read this as genealogical research, but as ethical teaching. To be heirs of those who stood at Sinai, to stand ourselves at the foot of the mountain, means not only to affirm identity. It means to take responsibility. Acts of senseless violence perpetrated in the name of Judaism are acts of desecration, to be decried and resisted, not enabled and tolerated.  

– Rabbi Michael Marmur, Rabbis for Human Rights, Israel

I’m reminded that in that workshop with JFREJ and Cherie Brown, she mentioned that Harvey Jackins, founder of Co-Counseling, once drew a diagram of anti-Semitism as a loose noose. Perhaps the Jews in the US are safe for good. Or perhaps now is a time of loose nooses for us. Or maybe, they’re not so loose after all.

– Yotam Marom, Toward the Next Jewish Rebellion

Though we know not what we will do, our eyes are upon You. 

Remember mother-love and merciful kindness, for they are eternal. 

May that kindness for which we yearn be upon us. 

We are brought very low….

have compassion, HaShem, have compassion. 

– Tahanun, Miles Hochstein, By The Shore of a Western Sea