Rabbis Without Borders
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Bamidbar is my daughter Elena’s bat mitzvah portion. As she was approaching bat mitzvah, fifteen years ago, my father was dying of metastatic cancer. He had been diagnosed the day before Thanksgiving, and died shortly after Passover. We celebrated Elena on his shloshim, the thirtieth day after my father’s death.
As you might imagine, the weeks leading up to our simcha were fraught, characterized by anticipation of the collision between paralyzing sorrow and effervescent joy. Elena and her sister made their last visit to New York to see their grandfather and he explained to Elena that he would not be able to be at her bat mitzvah, giving her carte blanche to select a book from his library as his gift to her. In a week he was dead.
My children were raised in a wonderful chavurah community, a village that came to our aid, bringing the details of our celebratory plan to perfect manifestation during my acute mourning. But for all the hands outstretched in support, it was still my honor to offer a teaching to my daughter, and my task to explore the themes of the Torah portion for a fitting message. Barely functional, I realized that my impulse, when stumped, was to turn to my learned father, but he was already on a morphine drip. Still, my state of denial was just such that I called him anyway.
“Hi Dad,” I said. “Hi Monkey.” “Dad, I can’t think of what to say to Elena at her bat mitzvah.” “Well, what’s her parsha?” I cringed, realizing that he had forgotten. “Bamidbar,” I answered. “How does it begin?” he asked, and with my heart in the pit of my stomach I offered: “And God spoke to Moses and the Children of Israel in the wilderness.” “The Wilderness of SINAI!” he added, and I heaved a sigh of relief; he had forgotten the date but he had not forgotten the Torah. So I acknowledged: “Yeah, the wilderness of Sinai.” “So?” he said. And, a little exasperated, I probed further: “So WHAT, Daddy?”
Then he gave me is final lesson: “God spoke to Moses and the Children of Israel in the Wilderness of Sinai! What more do you want?”
I laughed in understanding, and in appreciation of his prevailing elegance as my dying father revealed the redemptive meaning of the parsha’s opening phrase just by speaking it with a sense of wonder. Suddenly its message resonated over time and space, speaking directly to my child as she came of age, as well as to me, and, perhaps it speaks to you…
Life is a wilderness. Not a desert, not barren and dry, but certainly vast and wild, and uncharted. We move through life responding to what we encounter, making individual choices each step of the way. Our journeys are not without destination or aspiration, Sinais to reach. And our Sinais give us purpose and give us strength.
Even as we each negotiate the challenges of our own unique landscapes and strivings, we are not meant to journey alone. Moses and the Children of Israel had one another to lean into. They traveled in community and were companioned by God. One of the gifts of our human constitution is that we have the capacity to experience a dimension beyond the earth plane. We have the capacity to hear God’s voice. God spoke to Moses and the Children of Israel in the Wilderness of Sinai: grappling with the unknown as we raise up our lives, we must remember that we are not alone, and that God is always speaking.
The questions are: who is our community, and what is our Sinai, and are we listening?
It seems to me that our answers to these questions will greatly determine what kind of wilderness we confront in life.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.