Setting off on the Journey / Parasha Bamidbar

Our parasha opens with Israel encamped around Mt. Sinai. It has been 25 months since the Exodus from Egypt and they have been at Mt Sinai for a year and a half. It is time for them to set off for the land of their ancestors, the Land of Canaan.

This recalls a cartoon by the artist Mari Andrew. She shows us two identical drawings of a woman, holding a suitcase, staring at the road in front of her. On one side, she stares at an empty road ahead, and the caption reads: “I’m leaving.” The other road leads to a city, with trees and buildings, and clearly a sense of excitement. That caption reads: “I’m expanding.”

As we embark on a new journey, we often have two disparate feelings. One, a sense of discomfort, of anxiety, and of loss as we uproot ourselves from the familiar and normal routines of our lives and set off on to a destination we do not know.  

We can imagine our ancestors at Mt. Sinai having to choose which road to take… we can imagine their having  a sense of  dread and foreboding, as elsewhere in the Bible the Wilderness of Sinai is described as:

…..A land of deserts and pits,

A land of drought and darkness,

A land no man had traversed,

Where no human being had dwelt…

We can also imagine the Israelites at Mount Sinai having  a sense of hope,  of new possibilities  awaiting.  us. Indeed, it is in The Wilderness that the Israelite receive the Torah and where they develop their relationship with G-d. Why would G-d choose such an inhospitable, barren and forbidding place to give the Jewish people the Torah? We declare in our Torah service – Ki Mitzion Tetze Torah , which means that – The Torah “goes out” to the world from Jerusalem. Yet, God decided to give the Torah to the Jewish people in the wilderness. Would it not have been better to wait until they reached the Holy Land to bestow the Holy Torah upon the Holy People?

Our Rabbis teach that the Torah was given in the wilderness because just as nobody owns the wilderness, so no people have exclusive right to the Torah. We can own the Torah, but we are not its owners. It is free and is open to all. One does not have to be Jewish to learn from or be inspired by the Torah.  

This is a lesson to take to heart when it comes to our non-Jewish  family members, friends, neighbors… Maybe some of us think of their participation in our rituals and celebrations as primarily supporting roles in our Jewish spiritual lives or our sense of belonging to the community. Less often, perhaps, do we consider their participation as having a personal meaning for them.  One non-Jewish woman commented that when she recited the Shema with her Jewish family, she was reminded of the Jews throughout history who could not recite this prayer in safety and security. She also noted that the Shema was something she could say about God that felt true and authentic to her. Jewish practice and study can be nourishing and sustaining, can provide a sense of belonging and believing, not just to Jews but to non Jews as well . . At our synagogue we often host guests during services from different colleges and different religious backgrounds. In the process of learning more about Jewish prayer and ritual, they also learn a little Torah. Some go on to study with us on a weekly basis. Some come a few times; others, for years to study Torah with us.

 If any person comes to study Torah out of a search for truth, or to deepen his or her relationship to G-d, then they should be encouraged to explore the wisdom that Judaism has to offer. The Torah, as it states in the Book of Deuteronomy, is a “Morasha Kehillat Ya-akov” – “A precious inheritance of the Jewish People”. It is an inheritance worth sharing with the rest of humanity.

Shabbat Shalom

 Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash