A commentary on the first part of the Torah book called “B’midbar” (in the desert) but also known as “Numbers” and delivered by Rabbi Diane Elliot at a celebration of her 70th birthday.
Today we begin reading the book of B’midbar….. After being encamped for more than two months at Har Sinai, the Mountain of Encounter, the people are now to turn to face the Wilderness of Sinai, to enter those untamed, unstructured spaces that stands between them and the Land of Promise. The Hebrew word “Sinai,” I was reminded by my friend Estelle, comes from the same root as the word s’neh or bush. So the place to which Moses has brought the people, and at which they’ve been encamped for more than two years, receiving a massive download of instruction, is the very spot, akhar ha-midbar, “behind the wilderness,” where Moses had his first encounter with YHVH aka Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, The Being-That-Is-Ever-Becoming. And now they are preparing to leave this place of intimate encounter, this wedding chamber, and to enter the Wilderness of Encounter.
It has been taught that “life is lived, not so much in the grand moments as in uncelebrated, ordinary times.” (Etz Hayim commentary) So if Mt. Sinai is, as legend has it, the huppah, in whose sheltering shadow the people stand in partnership with the Divine, and the Torah is the ketubah, the wedding contract, then B’midbar leads us into the daily experiences of marriage—of God & the Israelites, and the Israelites with one another: the fears, the disappointments, the power struggles, getting used to one another’s quirks, establishing routines—who will wash the dirty dishes, who will make the beds, who will assemble and disassemble the Sacred Tent of Meeting, who will carry the ark of the covenant? Having made the initial commitment—“I will be for you a God and you will be for me a people,” and “na’aseh v’nishma,” we will do and we will come to understand what is being asked of us—now the relationship begins to unfold, to ripen, to be tested, both mythically, in the Torah, and in the life of each person within Yisrael, God-wrestlers down through the ages, including each one of us.
If it’s true that our lives are mostly lived not in peak moments, but in the “spaces between”—kol ha-Olam Kulo gesher tzar m’od—then this visible, tangible world is a bridge, a kind of high-tension wire on which we navigate, sometimes teeter precipitously, swinging between the Mountain and the Wilderness, between those rare and heady moments of focus, purpose, connection, B’har Sinai, and the uncharted territory of our days B’midbar, the wilderness days, days of cloudiness and confusion, of surprises and setbacks, all the uncontrollables and sudden switchbacks that set our narrow bridges swaying and trembling.
The traditional haftarah for today, verses from the prophet Hosea, looks back on this time in the midbar through a misty, romantic lens, the Hollywood version of midbar if you will, a kind of biblical “The Way We Were.” Here God speaks through the prophet as a cuckolded bridegroom, vowing to win back his errant bride, the people of Israel:
לָכֵן הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי מְפַתֶּיהָ וְהֹלַכְתִּיהָ הַמִּדְבּר…
Therefore, I will coax her
and lead her through the wilderness
And speak tenderly, to her heart.
I will give her her vineyeards from there
And the Valley of Achor as a plowland of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
When she came up from the land of Egypt.
And in that day, declares YHVH,
You will call Me Ishi (My beloved wedding partner)
And no more call me Ba’ali (Master)….
But in the Torah of Moses, midbar is a clearly not a honeymoon destination, but rather a place of challenge and boundary-setting, of rebellion and reconciliation, of terror and resolution and second-guessing, of death and of new life. Kol ha-olam kulo geshar tzar m’od, v’ha-ikar lo l’fakhed….
The Baal Shem Tov teaches that this swing between the sublime and the mundane, between expansive vision and constricted mind, is simply our human condition. It’s simply what we have been given—this tension between triumphant ascents to the summit and long slogs through the valleys of ordinariness and crevasses of tzurus. The Hasidic Masters have a name for this dynamic tension that describes our human journey: ratzo v’shov, running and returning. Like the angels before God’s throne in Ezekiel’s heavenly vision, we move toward and away from our true essence, from clarity to confusion, from connection to distance and back again on this “narrow bridge” that is our life.
And so how are we to prepare ourselves spiritually for this awesome life journey? What does Torah have to offer us about how to face the midbar of our lives, the pathless wilderness, in which we never know what’s around the next bend, what challenge or triumph, what possible danger, what abundance or lack? What helps us through—who or what helps you through—the wilderness, the wildness, of life?
My somatic teacher Bonnie Cohen once said to me: “I don’t believe in safety, but we can support one another.” Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community—a holy community—to sustain a marriage, and especially a marriage between human beings and the Ground of Being. It takes communal structures, potent rituals, joyful celebrations, physical reminders that embody Presence and help us negotiate the challenges of our earthly as well as our spiritual relationships. Our Torah today inaugurates the wilderness journey by listing the names of the tribal leaders, by counting the “hosts of Israel,” laying out structures in space and in time that are designed to help integrate the peak experience of the Mountain into the dailyness of midbar: the Mishkan, Tent of Meeting and Dwelling for Presence at the center of the camp; the rounds of festivals honoring the earth, the seasons, the harvests; the arrangement of the encampment; the weekly release of Shabbat….
Our three aliyot today honor the marriage of holiness and action, of structure and spirit, that we, as members of our Jewish communities, co-create to help us negotiate the terrors and joys of our lives, to uplift one another, so that we are not felled by fear or toppled into despair. Torah is a diving board from which we jump to dive deep into the evolving truth of our humanity. We are here today and every Shabbat, every time we encounter Torah, to bring Torah forward, to heal the past, the old stories by telling them anew, with expanded consciousness that speaks to the needs and spiritual challenges of our times. This is what our ancestors, the storytellers of old, modeled for us—not a static Torah, but a process of teaching and learning, an ages-old conversation that connects our minds with the minds of those long gone in an ongoing stream of creativity that not only heals the past, but expands us into the present and opens the possibility for co-creating a different future, one in which the past does not enslave us but points the way to a better future.
Aliyah #1: diversity, inclusivity – Midrash tells us that many non-Israelites left Egypt with B’nai Yisrael, while many of Jacob’s descendants chose to stay behind. Those who choose to make the journey to consciousness are the “tzvot Yah,” the “holy array.” Tzava = upcycle this idea, not God’s armies, but the “full array,” “the holy multiplicity” – it’s about lifting up everyone’s heads. In counting everyone, we acknowledge that everyone counts. Moses is to count every zakhar If we are to move toward the Land of Promise, a state of expanded consciousness that upholds the values of equity, justice and respect for all our fellow beings, then each person’s head must be lifted, everyone’s gifts counted, received. This aliyah is for those who choose to leave behind enslavement to small goals and ideals, to move together, as a community, into the space of expanded conscious together, supporting one another in this amazing spiritual endeavor, regardless of background, economic status, appearances.– a new kind of “army,” the hosts, the array of human diversity, both within our Jewish communities and in the larger community. For those who support… Yamdu, yamdu, yamdu
Aliyah #2: uniqueness – the inverse of the previous Aliyah – Torah lays out here the special role of service, played by some, in this case the Levites – they are to camp around the Mishkan, the central hub of the community, and tend to its holy vessels, the cloths and poles and the Ark of the Testament. If Moses is to “lift of the heads” of the people, then the Levites are to lift up the components that comprise the sacred space—they are to do this risky and important work on behalf of the whole community. So just as we open the tent wide to accept the gifts of all, we acknowledge that each of us is a unique channel, born to bring a particular flavor of Godness into the world. This is our “Levitical” self, the part of ourselves that we place in service to the whole – that guards the sacredness of the community, each in our own unique way. The “zar” cannot approach the holy. that which “dies” is one who approaches the holy spaces and vessels without the zakhar without khaf of zakhar, without the connectivity, the remembrance . So this Aliyah honors the Levites of this holy community – if you have volunteered hours so far this year to support the physical infrastructure of your community in some way, or if you’d like to serve in this way, please come up to Torah…. yamdu
Aliyah #3: “dedication of the first born to God” – turn our egos over to service of the holy, place them in sacred service…. Death of the first born is a death of consciousness…. the executive function is God’s, not a top-down control, but at the service of our full, multidimensional, embodied wisdom, tzelem Elohim, in God’s image.
Rabbi Diane Elliot introduced this teaching by saying:
I dedicate today’s Torah to Rabbi Burt Jacobson, my beloved partner, teacher, and best friend for almost 16 years who, despite the many bones he has to pick with the text of the Torah as it has come down to us, has nevertheless lived a life saturated with Torah, love of learning & teaching