Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Anyone who has ever traveled has, at least once in their life, gotten lost. We all know that sinking feeling – that moment when we realize that we missed a turn, or that the directions were faulty, or that we shouldn’t have relied on our memory. When it comes to our lives, though, there’s another, deeper way we get often find ourselves lost.
It comes when we don’t accept – or maybe don’t even know – where we actually are. And when we fight against or deny or ignore our reality, no matter what we do, we’ll remain lost.
Think about it this way – suppose you wanted to arrive at a specific location in downtown Chicago. Having a street map would be a huge help in getting to your destination. But imagine you were given the wrong map. Through a printing error, the map labeled “Chicago” is actually a map of Detroit – but you don’t know that. So what would you do to try to reach your goal?
You might work on your behavior – you might try harder, be more diligent, double your speed. But your efforts would only succeed in getting you to the wrong place faster. You might work on your attitude – you could think more positively. You still wouldn’t get to the right place, but perhaps you wouldn’t care. Your attitude would be so positive that you’d be happy wherever you were.
But the simple fact is – you’d still be lost, because you don’t really know where you are. (Based on The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, 23-24)
When we feel lost, we tend to think about “what we’ll do to get back on track.” But that information is useless unless we have the knowledge of “where we actually are at this moment.” Until we know and accept that, we’ll never get to where we need to go.
Right now, we are reading Torah in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers), a word that literally means “in the wilderness.” First and foremost, it is a book of the Israelites’ journeys and travels through the desert. It takes place over thousands of miles, and covers 38 of the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering. It’s truly a book not only about the Israelites’ physical wanderings, but also about the times they will feel lost in their lives, not knowing where to find solace.
And yet the Hasidic teacher Or haChayim highlights the intriguing way the book begins. The Or haChayim notes that the text starts “in the wilderness of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting” (Numbers 1:1). “When the Text mentions the place, it says first, ‘in the wilderness of Sinai’; a general expression. Afterwards, it says ‘in the Tent of Meeting,’ an expression of precise detail.” (Kushner and Olitzky, Sparks Beneath the Surface, 171)
The starting point of the book of Bamidbar is a sense of aimless wandering, with the Israelites not knowing where exactly they are, not knowing where they’ll end up, and certainly not knowing how they will get from point A to point B. And that is why the next phrase talks about “the Tent of Meeting” – the very specific place where God dwells. When the Israelites feel lost, they know exactly where they can find a place of strength and hope.
We, too, need that strength and hope when we feel like we are lost, but our sense of wandering is very different from the Israelites’. Thanks to GPS and Google Maps, our sense of being off-course or adrift is rarely about the places we visit. But how often do we get “lost in our thoughts”? How frequently do we let our “minds wander”? And when we go adrift and astray in our own world, we can’t accept reality as it is. We become so consumed with what was, what will be, or what ought to be that we can’t see what is.
As Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts phrases it:
…we cling to memories, are absorbed in reverie, and regret things that have already happened and are over. And we spend as much or more energy anticipating, planning, worrying and fantasizing about the future and what we want to happen or don’t want to happen.
And because of this inner busyness…we are liable to miss a lot of the texture of our life experience or to discount its value and its meaning…We miss some of most precious experiences of life, such as connecting with the people we love, or with sunsets or the crisp morning air. (adapted from Full Catastrophe Living, 23-24)
Wherever we happen to be physically, how often are we mentally somewhere – or, more accurately “somewhen” – else? We often forget that the only moment we have to do anything is right now. Until we know and accept where we are at this moment, we will remain feeling lost.
The Israelites had the Tent of Meeting as their place of strength and their reference point to guide them along their journey. For us, appreciating and living in each moment as it comes can be our source of strength and our reference point. If we are feeling adrift or that we’ve strayed from where we wanted to be, before we try to get back, our first step has to be our ability to say, “Regardless of how I feel about this situation, it is what it is. Let me accept it and live with it, because this moment and this situation is the only reality there is.”
When we do that, we can find a deeper sense of purpose and wholeness in our lives.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.