Beha’alotcha — 5770

31/05/2010 at 14:12 Leave a comment

“Listening While Traveling”

Shabbat Beha’alotcha

29 May 2010

Neil F. Blumofe

With the appearance of summer and the absence of school, many of us are planning to live our time differently now – other, summertime patterns are established for these next ten weeks or so – no longer having to serve a routine of lunches, homework time and related activities.  Some of us too are blessed that we may plan some travel – to visit relatives somewhere else, to cherish dedicated time with our family, to see a place that we haven’t see before, or that brings us joy.

However, even if some of us only benefit from a stay-cation this year, we are always in process of leaving the place that we currently are.  Even as robustly as we live, as the Book of Ecclesiastes teaches, we are always in the process of dying.  Sometimes we mask this awareness of our inevitable loss of our powers – sometimes we cloak our fears — with complaint, thinking that with a strong voice of opposition, that we are contrary, we remain vital.  More complaint belies more fear.  We do not know how to adequately express ourselves, so we resort to speech that immediately grabs attention – we can certainly see this in our children, sometimes – and too, some of us, in our aging parents, as well.

Here in the Book of Numbers, we finally embark again on our journey towards Eretz Yisrael, as we hear the familiar words – the words of course, that open and close our Torah services every Shabbat and during the week — vayhi binsoa ha’aron vayomer moshe – kuma haShem v’yafutsu oivecha v’yanusu m’sanecha mipanecha – uvnucho yomar shuva haShem riv’vot alfei Yisrael — when the ark would journey forth, Moses said, “Arise, God and let your enemies be scattered before you and those who hate You run from before Your face.”  And when the ark rested, Moses said, “reside peacefully, God, among the many thousands of Israel.”

There is something curious about these verses – the next time that you look in the Torah itself, you will see that these verses are especially demarcated – set off from the rest of the sacred text by two inverted nuns – this is not just our Torah, this is consistent in the scribal custom in the making of every Torah.  I am inspired by the commentary of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch on this verse – he teaches that these sayings of Moses encapsulate the import and aspirations of Israel’s journeys through life; if you will, they are the bumper stickers or the themes of the beginning of every journey and the end of every journey.  As we begin our eating with particular blessings for the food that we are eating and that we end with the Birkat haMazon – here too is a similar practice – we begin our journey with these dedicated words of intention and we end our journey with these words of tranquility and hope.

Looking even deeper into this passage, these words of Moses come directly out of a series of complaints and transgressions brought forth by the Israelites as they were on their journey – as Masekhet Shabbat of the Talmud teaches – in addition to complaining, the Israelites did not go directly to Eretz Yisrael after the experience of Sinai, rather they ran away, fleeing the holy mountain after revelation because they were afraid (according to Maimonides) that they would be getting even more commandments.  Essentially, the Israelites were traveling with a bad attitude.  This bad attitude permeated the camp and spread from one to the other, until all of the people (ha’am) k’miton’nim ra – turned themselves inside out with complaining.  The midrash teaches that this propensity to err became habitual, even after they saw their own suffering.  We would speak about this as an addiction – we may see the harm we do to ourselves in overeating, or by abusing alcohol or drugs, or in choosing to use abusive language – and yet we don’t stop ourselves and continue to harm others and ourselves.

Therefore, it is quite extraordinary that amid this complaining, the Torah brackets off these words of blessing, to highlight for us that we do not need to be in an ego mind loop – we can break the cycle of our own negativity.  The enemies that Moses speaks about — v’yafutsu oivecha v’yanusu m’sanecha mipanecha – are not just on the outside, rather they too are found within us.

Past all of the advantages, it is usually challenging to travel as well, especially with others.  Our Torah is teaching us a practice – too as we begin our day with the words of Modeh Ani and we close our day with the Bedtime Shema, we are asked to put the holy before us at all times as we go and to ask for help – this practice can benefit us, not only in passport control or recognizing that our flight has been delayed indefinitely because of some mechanical trouble – or that we have forgotten something in the taxi, like our charger for our mobile phone or our wallet – but too in our everyday lives – online, in line, and always.

And like complaining, this positive attitude, this dedication to connecting with that which is holy and most true is also contagious.  Later in our Torah portion, Joshua, who our tradition teaches, was filled with the spirit of wisdom, comes to Moses complaining about two others in the camp – Eldad and Medad, who were filled with ruach hakodesh, the divine spirit and were prophesying within the camp – what they were saying exactly is great material for our Talmud and Midrash – suffice it to say here, that their prophesying caused Joshua much discomfort.  In response, Moses is direct – mi yitein kol am haShem n’vi’im ki yitein haShem et rucho aleihem – would that the entire people of God would be prophets, if God would only place the divine spirit upon them.

Here, Moses is displaying discipline and courage, although his ways are not absolutely effective, as we will see in a moment – his people are self-destructing around him, and his trusted protégée, Joshua, is also afflicted with the complaining disease.  Moses stays the course and repels these slings and arrows of the outrageous everyday, in this moment.  However, the Book of Numbers puts us in a loop – stopping and starting, arriving and departing – we are always on our journey and the deeper lesson is that in our own cycles of travels, we do not have to set ourselves in our familiar patterns – if unchecked, this complaining begins from far off and then eventually spreads to the trusted circle and then to our family – as Miriam and Aaron begin to speak against Moses and his wife.

Each time, the Israelites did not hear the Torah service – and thus their complaining only increased to sad result.  How about us — do we hear these words that ground us in our journey, reminding us that no matter what distances that we travel, we do so by the grace of God?

Let us listen, differently.  Let’s go —    vayhi binsoa ha’aron vayomer moshe – kuma haShem v’yafutsu oivecha v’yanusu m’sanecha mipanecha –

And let us rest — uvnucho yomar shuva haShem riv’vot alfei Yisrael.

Shabbat Shalom.


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Shabbat Shemini — “The Soundlessness in the Middle” — 10 April 2010/26 Nisan 5770 Hukkat — 5770

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