Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha: G-d is my GPS

In this third parashah of the Book BaMidbar, we are finally on the move; after over a year camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, after receiving the Torah, constructing the Mishkan, organizing the priestly sacrificial system, and learning a lot of halakhah on how to maintain the appropriate atmosphere for the Mishkan in our midst, this week we read of the Israelites actually picking up and starting out on their way to the Land promised in our Covenant. BaMidbar means “in the wilderness”, and this book describes the preponderance of our ancestors’ adventures as they journey through it.

Imagine yourself in their place on the first morning that they began to move, with their families, their herds, and their flocks. If you have never explored the Sinai wilderness, here is an indication of what surrounds you: Sinai. You may have many questions about the trip (imagine the young children: “when will we get there?”), about oases, grazing land, and more, but first: in what direction are you to go? How do you stay oriented? How to know which caravan path will lead you the correct way?

You’d activate your GPS of course; no worries. The ancient Israelites did not have GPS, but they had something even more certain: the Presence of G-d, manifested as “a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night”.

Whenever the cloud was taken up from over the Tent, then after that the children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel encamped  (Numbers 9.17)

That was it: when the cloud moved, follow it. When it rested, set up the tents and make camp. The next thirty-nine years are to pass in this way. There is evidence in the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures) that, throughout the ages of Israelite dwelling in the Land of Israel, our ancestors somehow longed for this earlier time, which they saw as, simple, pure, and ideal. The Prophet Jeremiah expressed the feeling with the marriage metaphor commonly used for our Covenant with G-d?

I remember for you the affection of your youth, the love of our engagement; how you followed after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown. (Jeremiah 2.2)

 All human beings, at some point in our lives, long for such certainty; we would all love to know exactly how to make our way through the world. It’s not wonder that our ancestors looked back at that time as an ideal – although in the weeks ahead we will read of many disruptions to the harmony that they preferred to remember.

The word bamidbar, “in the wilderness”, may be interpreted in a way that speaks directly to us, we who also wander, not perhaps geographically, but in other ways just as profound. With different vowels, the word may be understood as referring to speech – to words. And this is the wilderness in which we often find ourselves seeking clarity of direction: in a wilderness of words, of spoken, written, radioed, emailed, texted, printed….transmitted in so many ways, how are we to find our way through it all? When we are barraged by information about a candidate or a cause, for example, how do we discern which words most help us to find our way toward a decision regarding the person or the matter at hand? Which words are dead ends, and which lead toward promise?

The Israelites didn’t follow that pillar for thirty-nine years mindlessly; they encountered challenges which they attempted to learn how to answer using the guidance G-d offered through mitzvot such as those found in Mishpatim: keep your word, respect other’s wells, help your neighbor with her burden, and offer others the respect you expect for yourself.

We may not have a pillar that clearly guides us forward, but we still have access to the ethical GPS that has guided our people since those early wanderings. It can guide us just as clearly as we face our own challenges. That’s the gift offered through Torah study: over and over again, we bring our questions to Torah, and as we “turn it over and over again” we find that “….everything is in it”. Most wonderful of all, in this wandering we are not ever alone, for we’ve learned that the only way to follow that pillar is together, holding hands and stepping forth into the world.

Shabbat Ki Tetze: Eyes Wide Open, and Blackberries Too

Sometimes I am asked why I choose to bring the woes of the world into our awareness on Shabbat. “Rabbi, I spend all week aware of all that’s wrong in the world – on Shabbat I want to get away from it.” Would that we could so easily “turn off” the world, refresh our souls in peace, and then be ready to come back out into the world full of resolve to repair it. Would that Shabbat really could be such an oasis.


For the oasis to be complete, however, we’d have to close our eyes to a lot of what is true of our human Jewish lives, even on Shabbat. The parashat hashavua is a good example; Ki Tetze is full of specific laws meant to correct for all-too-common human sins: social, sexual, environmental, and more.


When you go out to war… (Devarim 21.10)

When a husband hates a wife…(21.15)

When a child disobeys a parent’s authority…(21.18)

If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death…(21.22)

Do not take the mother [bird] together with the young…(22.6)


In short, if you want to spend Shabbat away from the real world, you won’t be able to spend it as a Torah-learning Jew on this Shabbat.  Our Torah, and our prayers as well, are too immersed in the world – too much of the world and our place in it – to allow us to close our eyes and turn away from the world, and call it Shabbat. Not in this world; perhaps, in the World To Come.


The parashah is named, after all, Ki Tetze – “when you go out”. We all have an inner life and it must be nurtured, but one must also hold on to the outer world, for it offers us an anchor to reality, through the communities in which we find our place. Once in a while we all need a reality check from someone we trust.


Jewish spirituality is embedded in the messiness and the sinfulness of the human condition as we are, here and now. It is out of that context that we find the sparks of light to find our way. Jewish mysticism compares the presence of G-d in the world to tiny sparks of light which are hidden in klipot, in shell casings that are hard and heavy. We do not find the sparks by closing our eyes to the world of klipot, but by opening our eyes wide, bringing all our discernment to bear, and searching within the ugliness and difficulty of human life in all its pain and sorrow. 


That is because everything, even the klipot, are part of the Oneness of All that Is. You, and I, and those who go out to war, and those who hate, and those who mock, and those who are put to death, and the little bird on the ground trying to protect her nest. We cannot turn away from them and find G-d, for all of them, all of us together, are the reflection of G-d. The world is nothing more or less than that, though it seems madly contradictory. It is contradictory and confusing and complicated – but also sweet, with moments of blessing that are sweeter for their surprising presence underneath that which so often blocks them from our sight. We can have both, because we are constantly living in both. Sometimes we see through tears, and sometimes we are also capable of moments of reprieve, in which we can rest without turning away from the reality of those tears in our world.


Earth’s crammed with heaven, 

and every common bush afire with G-d, 

but only he who sees takes off his shoes. 

The rest sit round and pluck blackberries. 

(Elizabeth Barrett Browning)


I wish you a barefoot Shabbat – and blackberries too.

Va’Era: parashat hashavua commentary

This week’s parashat hashavua, Va’Era, derives its name from a curious assertion on the part of none other than God about the names by which we know God: I am יהוה  – I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob by the name El Shaddai, but my name יהוה they did not come to know. (Ex.6.2-3). What’s a bit strange about this is that if you go back and check the Book of Genesis, that Four Letter Name of God does indeed appear in the text. What does God mean by saying they did not know God by that name?
Our companion in insightful interpretation, the medieval commentator Rashi, writes: “It is not written here I did not make the name known to them but they did not come to know the name.” It’s one thing to hear a name spoken. It is apparently quite another to know the name that one hears spoken. This Name of God, ancient though it is, is not necessarily known, says God.
Knowing is not an easy thing. “One may love a river as soon as one sets eyes upon it; it may have certain features that fit instantly with one’s conception of beauty, or it may recall the qualities of some other river, well known and deeply loved. One may feel in the same way an instant affinity for a man or a woman and know that here is pleasure and warmth and the foundation of deep friendship. In either case the full riches of the discovery are not immediately released – they cannot be; only knowledge and close experience can release them. Rivers, I suppose, are not at all like human beings, but it is still possible to make apt comparisons, and this is one: understanding, whether instinctive and immediate or developing naturally through time or grown by conscious effort, is a necessary preliminary to love. Understanding of another human being can never be complete, but as it grows toward completeness, it becomes love almost inevitably.” (Roderick L. Haig-Brown, “To Know a River”, Home Waters: A Fly-Fishing Anthology. Fireside/Simon & Schuster)
In the process which Moshe undergoes of coming to know God, it will take a lifetime to reach completeness. In just the first few chapters of Exodus, three significant names for God are recorded in the text. Upon consideration of the nuanced echoes of the Torah’s usage and context, you will see that each one of them is less known than you thought:
Most intriguingly, the name El Shaddai, that Name which God says was known to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is possibly linked to a cognate form from the Akkadian language which refers to breasts. Perhaps El Shaddai, which could refer to a sense of a nurturing Mother God, was precisely the appropriate name for our early ancestors to know God by during those first years in which they took their “baby steps” toward the rich fullness of what we now practice as Judaism.
This name which God presents to Moshe, the Four Letter Name of יהוה , seems not to be a proper name at all. It is not pronounceable in this form. Perhaps, rather, it is a pictograph: a simple invoking of the letters by which one expresses the Hebrew verb “to be” in all its tenses: was, is, will be. In other words, not a proper name, but an evocation of Eternity. All.
And most mysterious of all, the Name God gives Moshe at the bush which burned but was not consumed: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. This is often but not necessarily translated “I will be what I will be.” What will yet be is not yet apparent. This is what Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all struggled with.
And now, we, in our turn, struggle with the same uncertainty. There is an immediate, urgent need for clarity – and there will be no clarity just yet. For the Israelites, it will occur only after much suffering, many plagues, and terrible fear, in the midst of a journey from which there is no turning back. And in the midst of all that chaos, they first were able to truly know God ,and then they sang, in the words of the mi kamokha, zeh Eli!  “This is my God!”
One need not know God with certainty, and certainly not with clarity, to make that journey – we are all making it every day. What will be, will be, in time. One day you look up and you are suddenly able to see Eternity, and your place in it.  Then, on that day, you will be able to see that which you will come to know, and name it.