A good friend of mine who was always somewhat of a “news junkie” told me that he doesn’t watch the news anymore. Part of his claim was that the world is so disturbing, and every day there seems to be another crisis that feels threatening and dangerous. I think we all have that experience these days to a greater or lesser extent.
We are living in a world of great uncertainty. But I’m not sure that this is so unique. That is, throughout history I think people have lived through many periods of uncertainty. And in spite of the dangers that we face, we know there is so much that is good about our lives. Yet it is true that threats of violence and terror and environmental dangers are part of our reality; not to mention the sense of uncertainty about our own health. And so, that is the reality which is our life. In some ways, the threats are more consequential on a global level than ever before.
My sense is that our moment on the Jewish calendar does have a hint of a response. This week, we begin reading the Book of Numbers. The Book of Numbers in Hebrew is Bamidbar. Bamidbar does not mean “numbers” it means “in the wilderness.” The wilderness was a vast place of great uncertainty and potential danger. And yet we know that it was in the wilderness where our people found themselves creating a community. It was in the wilderness that the people received God’s revelation. It was in the wilderness that our ancestors received Torah.
It may seem like a bit of an over simplification, but I do believe it is important for us to derive messages from that experience, and from that text which can inform our own lives now.
Our people were between having been slaves in Egypt, and entering into a new land. The place they found themselves was filled with dangers; the uncertainty of the desert, marauding tribes, wild beasts, and lack of food and water.
So what do we learn from their experience for our lives?
I would suggest a few things, although there’s a lot more.
A teacher of Bible, Avivah Zornberg, wrote a book on the Book of Numbers and entitled it “Bewilderments.” She was referring to the fact that the wilderness was an experience that not only reflected external danger but also created an awareness of deeper vulnerability. It’s one thing to experience danger, but another thing to understand and control our responses.
We learn that they formed the communal organization where they were tied to each other for both protection and spiritual expression. I often think that community plays a more important role today than ever, even though most ignore its importance. Though we are highly technologically advanced, we clearly need other people. Although the world is more connected and ideas more universal, we need to connect to people with a common past, people who share a tradition, and people who hold onto similar dreams. During difficult times it is so important to have a community of people who care for each other. So too, during times of joy, the community enables our happiness to be shared and increased.
It was in the wilderness that the people forged a relationship with a spiritual presence, God. Clearly, in times where we are challenged, when we are faced with uncertainty, and when we’re feeling vulnerable, we need something more to hold on to. We need a source to direct our yearnings and our cries. We need to be able to turn deeply into our own souls and spirits where we find more then the material, but the spiritual. We also can find comfort praying to the Source of the universe.
During uncertain and vulnerable times a structured life becomes more important so all doesn’t fall into confusion. For us, that is where a Torah, with its laws and regulations, requirements for Shabbat and holy times, rules about human behavior can give a sense of certainty and boundaries, when it seems there are none.
Yesterday Mark Zuckerberg gave the graduation speech to Harvard’s class of 2017. He addressed some of the uncertainties of this world, and ended his speech with a prayer, mi Shebeirach. He mentioned that he says it to his daughter before he puts her to bed. It is the particular mi shebeirach prayer that was written by Debbie Freidman. “May the source of strength who blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.”
It points to one more thing regarding the way we face our world and the message from Bamidbar. And that is, we have to work hard to make our lives a blessing. We have to join together, doing good works, speaking the truth and speaking out for the truth. To make our lives a blessing, we must be involved in all of those things that help improve life and the future of humanity.
I’ll see you in shul as we begin this new book, together as a community, and I hope to see you next week as we celebrate the receiving of Torah on Shavuot!
Rabbi David Steinhardt