Embrace the Wilderness: Parashat Beha’alotekha 5782

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One of the central tensions of the Book of Numbers is perfectly expressed by the two very different names by which it is known. In English, of course, we call it Numbers, a name derived from the book’s opening narrative – counting and organizing the Israelite population for the purpose of invading, conquering, and settling the Promised Land. But in Hebrew, we call it Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of In-the-Wilderness, a tumultuous and tragic tale of wandering, rebellion, and, ultimately, generational ruin. And it is in our Torah portion this week, Parashat Beha’alotekha that the Book of Numbers, a narrative of order and purpose, actually transitions to being Sefer Bamidbar, a story of loss, and of being lost. 

As Parashat Beha’alotekha begins, the Children of Israel are preparing to depart Mt. Sinai, where they had been encamped for about a year, for their apparently imminent arrival in the Promised Land. According to the great medieval French commentator, Rashi, Moses and the people believed that they would reach the Promised Land within three days of their departure from Sinai. But just as soon as the Israelites leave Sinai, they begin to complain, beginning a devastating cycle of rebellion and punishment that culminates in God barring the generation of the Exodus from entering the Promised Land, dooming them instead to perish in the wilderness, a decree that will be leveled against them in next week’s portion, Parashat Shlakh-Lekha.

What happened? How did the Israelites, a people coming from a year of living intimately with the Divine at Sinai break faith so drastically, and soon into their journey? How did this people, who could practically see their destination just over the horizon become so hopelessly lost so close to their destination?  

Interestingly, the text of this week’s parashah does not record the subject of the people’s first complaint. Rather, it uses the term k’mitonenim, which, literally translated, means “like those who cause themselves to wail.” In other words, there was no content to the Israelites’ first complaint. They manufactured a grievance. They drove themselves to dissatisfaction. 

A few verses later, the people complain again. This time, we are told the subject of their protest: they are sick of the manna, the heavenly bread that God miraculously caused to appear for them in the wilderness, and crave meat, expressing a longing to return to Egypt, where they audaciously claim to have freely enjoyed bountiful fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic (11:5). Here, too, the text indicates that the complaint is manufactured. The text says that the “rifraff in their midst hit’avu ta’avah,” literally, they “caused themselves to crave a craving.” 

The result of both complaints, of course, is tragedy. Which begs the question, “why”? Why would the Israelites – a people with so much to lose and with so much to gain – deliberately choose to break faith and veer off the simple path toward fulfilling their dreams? 

The answer, I think, lies in the wilderness itself. Between leaving Sinai and entering the Promised Land, the people find themselves in a transitional space. Because the wilderness is literally neither here nor there, it is quite likely that the people felt they were precisely nowhere. Being situated in this transitional nowhere, detached from God’s Mountain and distant from the Holy Land, must have produced within the Israelites a sense of being unmoored, vulnerable, even lost. Philosopher Paul Tillich calls this feeling the “anxiety of nonbeing,” an existential crisis that we can experience when we transition between stages of life, when we are no longer who we were previously, but when we haven’t yet developed into who we are becoming. The Israelites rebel, according to Tillich, to escape the insecurity and uncertainty of living by resisting moving forward, retreating to an imaginary and idealized past, and acting in ways that are harmful and destructive, towards others and even towards ourselves.

The tragedy, however, is that it didn’t have to be this way. Right as the people leave Sinai, just before the story turns to their downward spiral of self-destruction, we encounter two verses that interrupt the flow of the narrative, an interruption expressed by the fact that the verses are bracketed in the text by two inverted nuns, which you can see reflected both in the printed chumash and also in the Sefer Torah itself:

Vayehi binso’a aron va-yomer Moshe: kumah Adonai va-yafutzu oyvekha, va-yanusu mis’anekha mipanekha / When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say, Arise, Infinite One, that Your enemies may scatter, and that those who hate You flee before You!’ Uv’nukho yomar: shuvah Adonai rivevot alfei yisrael / And when it would rest, he would say, ‘Return, Infinite One of Israel’s myriads of thousands.

These verses are likely quite familiar to us all, because to this day, we sing them every time we take the Torah out from, and return the Torah to, the Aron ha-Kodesh, the Holy Ark. In their context, these verses are an unheeded reminder to the people that even though they might have felt they were leaving God behind in entering the wilderness, God was not moving on from them. Wherever the Ark goes, God would go with it. Wherever the Ark rests, God would rest with it. And therefore so long as the people travel with the Ark in their midst, God would be in their midst. As long as they camp where the Ark camps, they will dwell with the Divine. 

Of course, according to Jewish tradition, God is no more physically present with the Ark than anywhere else. Moreover, God and the Ark are not synonymous; that would render the Ark an idol. Rather, the ancient Ark was a symbol of God’s presence. So through these verses, the Torah was trying to remind the Israelites that, as J.R.R. Tolkien famously wrote, “not all who wander are lost.” Though they may be leaving God’s mountain, and though they may not yet have arrived at their holy destination, so long as they bear in mind that God remains with them on their journeys, then they need not fear the time and space between origin and destination. But the moment they lose sight of that truth, then they will become hopelessly, irredeemably lost. 

The tragedy, then, of our parashah, and indeed of the whole Book of Numbers, is that our ancestors did lose sight of that truth. Consumed by the spiritual disorientation of leaving Sinai and not immediately entering the Promised Land, existentially anxious about traversing the transitional space of the wilderness, the Children of Israel resist moving forward. They resist the uncomfortable uncertainty of the present, retreat to an imaginary and idealized past, and, ultimately, self-destruct. 

What might have happened had the Israelites actually overcome this existential anxiety and embraced the wilderness journey? Of course, it’s hard to say with certainty. But those of us who have gone through periods of transition in our own lives – seasons when we are no longer who we once were, but we are not yet who we might become – likely know the difference between rebelling against the wilderness and embracing the journey, however uncertain and uncomfortable and even frightening as it may have been. Sometimes, our greatest challenges can also facilitate our greatest growth, especially if we choose to lean into those struggles as opportunities for transformation, rather than resisting or rebelling against them. Of course, none of us enjoys hardship, and pain need not be welcomed as a gift. However, it is also true that there is no motion without friction. There is no growth without discomfort. Ultimately, meaningful, positive transformation is impossible without unsettling the status quo and enduring the uncertainty and instability that are a necessary part of the process. 

Our congregation is about to enter a season similar to the one the Israelites experience in this week’s parashah. This is our last Shabbat in our sanctuary before it is shut down for renovation, meaning we will, for a period of time, be proverbially wandering in the wilderness – no longer encamped at God’s mountain, comfortably situated in our permanent sacred space, but not yet in the Promised Land of a rejuvenated sanctuary. No matter how much we need this renovation, no matter how long we have needed it, and no matter how magnificent and beneficial our new facility will be, this transitional period will, for many of us, feel deeply unsettling.

Already, I feel the stirrings of anxiety within our congregation. Who are we outside the space that formed us and spiritually sustained us for all these years? Who will we be when we arrive at our destination, which we have seen only in architectural renderings? In this unknown in-between, how will we nourish our souls, connect with our community, commune with the Divine? How will we celebrate sacred moments in our lives outside our sacred space? How will we remember lost loved ones outside a space suffused with so many memories? 

The question before us, then, is not whether we will enter the wilderness, but whether we will survive the journey. Will we embrace the disequilibrium, or will we seek to escape the instability by trying to retreat to an idealized past, resisting forward movement, or rising up against one another. In this undefined space between Mt. Sinai and the Promised Land, will we flourish, or will we fall? Will our travails precede our redemptive rebirth, or will they swallow us up?

Fortunately, we have something our ancient ancestors didn’t. We have the gift of being able to study how they went astray, and to learn from their mistakes. We can see the wrong decisions they made, and make different ones. When our ancestors left Sinai, they did not heed the words that we now know well, the words we sing every week, which remind us that though we may wander, we will not be lost – so long as we bear in mind that God always remains with us on our journey. 

Those words from our parashah employ the Ark of the Covenant as the symbol of God’s presence, assuring the people that so long as they see the Ark, they will know that God is with them, and as long as they center their camp around the Ark, the Divine dwells in their midst. Today – spoiler alert for those who’ve never seen an Indiana Jones movie – we no longer possess that ancient Ark. Since its disappearance centuries ago, our tradition has regarded Torah itself to symbolize God’s presence in our midst. That’s what it means when we recite those verses about the Ark whenever we take the Torah out to study it: we are reminding ourselves that, so long as we orient ourselves around Torah – around divine insight, around ancestral wisdom, around sacred deeds – God will be in our midst, wherever we journey; so long as we look to Torah, we will never be lost, no matter where we wander. 

My friends, we are about to depart from a holy mountain and enter an unknown wilderness. Maybe we’ve already been wandering for some time. But if we can embrace the wilderness – if we can find the Torah in it, and if we can hold fast to Torah and to each other through it – we will make it to the Promised Land stronger than ever.

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