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 Ekev: What Happens When You Listen

This week our parashat hashavua (parsha, “section”, of the week) is named Ekev. The word literally means “heel”, as in Jacob/Yaakov’s name, given to him because he emerged from the womb holding on to his brother Esav’s heel. This same word ekev paired with another conjugation of shema leads the Jewishly attuned ear to an entirely different place, that of the Akedah – possibly the most troubling Torah text of all, with which we struggle on Rosh HaShanah. Ekev, ekev, because of, due to, on account of…..

Parashat Ekev begins with this verse (Deut. 7.12):

יב  וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם–וְשָׁמַר י-ה אֱלֹקיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ.

It shall be that because you listen to these just teachings, and guard and do them, that the HaShem your G*d will guard for you the Covenant and the Covenant-loyalty sworn to your ancestors

V’hayah ekev tish’meh’un, “it will be on the heels of your listening”. The expectation here is that listening leads to a real result. One might see it as “hear and obey” but the great teachers of our tradition offer us much more to consider.

One insight is based upon a very close look at the first few words: “According to the joy and a person’s desire to fulfill the mitzvot, so one merits to hear, to attain, and to fulfill them….If you take the responsibility for the mitzvah upon yourself in joy, by means of this you will be able to listen.” 

This teaching from the Sefat Emet takes an ancient Talmudic comment connecting the word V’hayah with joy, and invites us to consider that v’hayah is for each of us a relative concept, linked to the satisfaction we take in the mitzvah.  מצוה גוררת מצוה – “The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah.” In the moment when we are to recite the blessing before doing the mitzvah, we have the opportunity to become mindful of this amazing idea: that every moment is pregnant with meaning, if we are able to listen.

This is the ultimate salve for the burnout some of us begin to feel in our weaker moments. Not thanked enough? not having the work noticed enough? We all have that kind of childish moment when we want to be noticed doing a good thing. At that moment it is up to our more grown-up self to reassure the child within: stay in touch with the joy of the mitzvah, have fun with it because it is a mitzvah, and, as the Sefat Emet teaches, we will finally understand the meaning of the Shema, “to love G*d with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your resources.”

This ancient Jewish teaching is the source of the Western ethical idea that whatever we do, we should do our best to do it well. Whatever we are doing is not only about our small self, but has an effect, as we know, on the larger shared Self of the World within which we live our lives.

First, one must learn to listen carefully. Not simply waiting until another has finished speaking so that we can say our truth, but listening in such a way that it has a real effect. Maybe it allows you to be a better listener, not defensive or dismissive; maybe it allows you to begin to consider trading in your truth for a better one. A possibly apocryphal but still great quote attributed to the economist John Maynard Keynes can lead our way: when accused of changing his position on some important issue of economics, he is said to have replied, “When the facts change, sir, I change my mind. What do you do?”

If we listen, only if, says the Torah, then something good will happen. It is an interesting test. How do you change when you really, really listen? It’s something we can practice at any moment. Sometimes we need to listen to ourselves, sometimes to something outside.

We are promised that alert, respectful, careful listening will lead to something – to change, and, finally, to growth of the spirit – when, finally, one comes to a place where one truly feels that the reward of the mitzvah is the mitzvah, and the sense that one is closer to the Source of the mitzvot. And you will know when you are there, because you will feel the joy.