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)
The name of our parashah this week is the same as the name of the Book we are now beginning, once again, to study: BaMidbar, “in the wilderness,” the Book called Numbers in English. So far in our journey from Egypt toward that which is Promised, our Torah has recounted for us the escape itself, the arrival at Mt Sinai, the building of the Mikdash, the sacred space, and the details of how we are to approach the Presence of G*d, in that space and, for that matter, everywhere else. From the arrival at Sinai, all the action has taken place at the foot of that mountain. Now, “on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they came out of Egypt” (Num.1.1), we are preparing to leave Sinai, and to strike off across the untracked wilderness.
This parashah is always read just before Shavuot, the Festival of the giving of the Torah which we will celebrate next Tuesday evening through Wednesday (and Thursday, which is the 2nd day of the Diaspora). Our ancestors, contemplating the context for our receiving the Torah, note that it was given “amidst three things: fire, water, and wilderness” (Midrash Rabbah).
Fire, as we learn from the account of Sinai enveloped in smoke and fire, G*d appearing in a burning bush, and the pillar of fire that will lead us onward, symbolized in the fire that is to be kept ever-burning on the altar and in our hearts.
Water, as we know from the story of our people entering the Sea of Reeds in an act of faith, and crossing through it in a way as miraculous as if on dry land.
Wilderness, for the thirty-nine years our ancestors will make their way, each day in the faith that they are slowly approaching that which has been Promised, that safe resting place which will be Home.
The Lubliner Rebbe noted that the first two of these elements are momentary occurrences: our people came through fire and water, and it was done. But the wilderness journey was a sustained, on-going struggle in uncertainty.
The Festival of Shavuot is often described by our tradition as the wedding between G*d and the People of Israel, and the Torah is, therefore, our ketubah. And we can see the similarity: the fire and water of initial passion and emotion, which in time settles into the daily wandering in the wilderness which is a true, living relationship. Whether with another individual or with one’s kehillah, one’s intentional Jewish community, an initial attraction and excitement will inevitably settle into the real struggle to deal with all the uncertainties of living, evolving, and growing – as an individual and with others.
To truly exist in the wilderness takes dedication, strength and courage: the courage to stay engaged when one’s certainties are upset, the strength to hold still and listen to that which is new, and the dedication to stick with the meaning of the journey on the bad days, the days of mokhin d’katnut, as the mystics put it, when we are small-minded and not kind, neither to others nor to ourselves.
On this Shabbat, we are invited to dive deep into remembering the state of wandering – not in the easy way of the bumper sticker, wandering among institutions that do not ask for our personal loyalty, but in the difficult way of being that leads to that which is Promised:
The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being. A place that demands being open to the flow of life around you. A place that demands being honest with yourself without regard to the cost in personal anxiety; a place that demands being present with all of yourself.
In the wilderness your possessions cannot surround you. Your preconceptions cannot protect you. Your logic cannot promise you the future. Your guilt can no longer place you safely in the past. You are left alone each day with an immediacy that astonishes, chastens, and exults. You see the world as if for the first time.
Now you might say that the promise of such spirited awareness could only keep one with the greatest determination in the wilderness but for a moment or so. That such a way of being would be like breathing pure oxygen. We would live our lives in but a few hours and die of old age. As our ancestors complained, It is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness (Exodus 14.12).
And indeed, that is your choice. (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, Honey From the Rock)
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other for the journey, in Israel, in the U.S., and in our own intentional communities – that journey which continues at our feet right here, right now.
I have been away, even away from media, on a month sabbatical to mark my twenty-fifth year as a Rabbi. This is my first opportunity to seek with you some sense of response to the tragedy that occurred in my hometown on Sunday.
That day was Shavuot, the spring Festival of the Harvest. We should have been delighting in our gardens and our farmer’s markets and the gift of green in spring in ways that are so Portland, and in the Jewish way too, gathering to chant the praises of Hallel and eating dairy and marking the gift of moral law given to our people on that day (the spring harvest Festival is also the day on which we remember hearing the Ten Words at Sinai).
Instead of having the luxury of taking a day to consider how we might focus ourselves more on our daily internal journey toward spiritual wholeness and community, using our Ten Words as a moral support, we are confronted with the horror of the moral failure of our society. And we devolve toward the same endless morass of media coverage, and the same awful words. Hate. Guns. Death.
Once again guns. Once again the craven moral failure of congressional leadership, using this tragedy, once again, for political interests, proving themselves unable to lead us anywhere except further into darkness.
Black Lives Matter has awakened us to the failure of our police to “protect and serve”. What might it take for the United States of America to confront the failure of our elected leadership to represent us? There are more guns than people in the U.S. now.
As a Rabbi, I do not seek to offer you a definitive answer as much as to help you find the ways in which Jewish tradition will lead you toward your own sense of your best moral response to evil. I do not say whether to respond; especially one the other side of Sinai, still with its looming shadow above us, moral response is an urgent requirement.
What are you, an individual, to do? Jewish tradition offers you clear moral guidance. First: no Jew is only an individual. We have the support of community with us. And second, that community’s ancient rituals have just offered us The Ten Words, our oldest moral code. They include these: do not murder.
* don’t let go of your anger at the swelling tide of evil our elected representatives allow by avoiding gun control legislation. They are guilty of aiding and abetting mass murder by their refusal to act. Use your anger; let it give you strength to bind up wounds as you can, offer your support to the grieving, and fight off the helplessness that you cannot allow to seduce you into believing that there is nothing you can do. Love, as much as you can.
* show up. Know that your presence and your voice must be used for a moral response or you are abdicating your responsibility. Those leaders who refuse to act must hear that we see them and we condemn them. Find a way to respond meaningfully: write a letter, send a donation, participate in a march or a vigil, and vote, every time, knowledgeably.
Finally – the media has told us that this is a hate crime against the LGBTQ community, and indeed, statistics show that for the first time, the number of hate crimes against that community has overtaken the number focused against Jews. The Pulse night club billed itself as a gay club. Politicians who refuse to recognize that are criminally avoiding their leadership responsibility.
But it is important to let Shabbat Naso remind us of something difficult to parse, and that is our shared humanity. When is it best to hold a group apart for sympathy, or for condemnation for that matter? When must we note our differences so that we can cherish them as our havdalah prayer teaches, and we must we assert that we are all the same, created in the Image of G*d, as our Judaism asserts?
The attack at Pulse was an attack on us all. It was an attack on certain individuals for certain characteristics but it was also an attack on us all. Gandhi once said “I am a Christian, I am a Jew, I am a Hindu, and so are you.” Learning from that prophet, seeing where his words coincide with Jewish ethics, we can add a verse:
I am gay, lesbian, trans, and bisexual;
I am an immigrant Muslim;
I am a cowardly congressman,
and so are you.
Hate divides us. If love is to conquer all, it must reach all. Yes, vote the criminally irresponsible out, but don’t hate them. That is the yetzer hara’, the evil impulse, and when we hate those who hate we do nothing but continue to feed and strengthen that hatred.
The parashah this Shabbat is Naso, which refers to the method of taking a census used by the ancient Israelites: to count each one was to account for each one, expressed in the Hebrew idiom naso et rosh, “lift up the head”. We don’t count by bodies, but by lifting up each head to look each person in the face.
When we do that, when we lift every face, we see the human in each one, even those with whom we cannot relate. When we all find a way to look into the eyes of each other in our world, only then will we find a way forward out of this horrible, horrible pit.
Naso et rosh, lift your head, and help others to do so as well. Help the grieving to look up toward the sun and its promise in this time of our spring festival; help the LGBTQ community to lift up in pride this Sunday; and may you feel the strength that you are offering echo back to you so that you, too, can find a way to look up, and around, and see G*d’s presence reflected in this still so broken and hurting world – a promise, just like spring, that the small bud of love will grow again and again.
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)
This week the parashat hashavua (“text of the week”) is called Naso, a word related to the Hebrew idiom for counting. It literally means “lift up the head”, and underscores the importance of truly seeing each person whom one is counting. This is different from the Western idea of “counting heads”, which only tells you how many bodies are in the room; to lift up the head is to look in the face, to take account of (“a count of”) each person in their personhood. It’s an interesting counter (sorry) to the prevailing communal idea: here we note each precious, unique and irreplaceable individual who makes up our community.
That is the catch: a community is, after all, made up of individuals. There’s an old joke: “I love the Jewish people, it’s just Jews I can’t stand.” More accurately, for all of us the ideal of community is ideal, but the individual human beings with whom we share it may be annoying, from time to time. It’s worth recalling the old Hasidic admonition: when your attention is directed outward at others who bother you, remember that the world is made up of reflections, and you, in your turn, are no doubt just as much a bother to others.
This week we get into the specific, annoying details of life with others. This week’s parashah includes the Sotah ritual, much critiqued by feminists who see this as a misogynistic horror. One case in point is that of “any man whose wife may stray and betray his trust” (Numbers 5.12). Any husband who suspects that his wife has been intimate with another man is commanded to bring her to the priest, who puts her through a curious ritual. Drink this, swear that – and if you are guilty, you’ll get sick. If you are not, you’ll be fine. It seems quite shocking until one realizes that, for the time, it may well have been a woman’s salvation. There are cultures where, to this day, a woman whose husband is jealous of her might very well kill her, with or without the help of his male relatives, and without fear of government intervention or punishment. In this case the man may not lay a hand on his wife, no matter what his provocation: he must bring her to the priest.
It is interesting to further note that the Rabbis of the Talmud abolished the sotah ritual because it could only be conducted in a case where the husband had never committed adultery or any other sexual violation; i.e. a woman could not be accused of something that her accuser was doing. “When the adulterers increased in number, the rite of bitter waters was stopped; Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai stopped it.” (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 9.9).
Some of us tend to accuse the Torah of not being timeless. In truth it is far more amazing to consider how progressive it was when it was codified, two millennia ago. It’s worth keeping in mind the old Rabbinic saying, “the Torah speaks in the language of human beings”. What they meant, I believe, is that while the words of Torah are written down by human beings who are doing their best to record what they believe they have heard G-d saying, they do not hear clearly. Just as G-d spoke to the prophets, we are told, by dreams and riddles, so also we who try to understand the truth of our lives and the world we live in are squinting through a lens smudged by our preconceptions, our desire to find what we want to see, and our inability to see what we cannot conceive.
The theological word for perceiving truth is “revelation”. Sinai, when we received Torah, is called a revelatory moment. We are about to remember and re-celebrate it next week with our Shavuot observance. It seems fantastically appropriate, as our Festival of the Giving of the Torah falls this year during Portland’s Rose Festival, to note that according to our tradition’s teachings, Torah’s revelation unfolds like a rose; each generation sees more and more, as the many-petalled rose blooms over the generations of Jewish study that have kept it fed, and watered, and fertilized. “Even the innovation of a future student, wise in the ways of the teachers, is already included in the revelation at Sinai.” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Peah 6).
Torah is not timeless, and individuals are not perfect. It’s the community’s dance with Torah over time that puts the curious bits, and the irritating people, into the context of kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, “all Israel is responsible, one for another”, and keeps the word of G-d startlingly relevant, when you least expect it, but stay open to the chance.