Thursday, May 13, 2010

Spirituality in the Wilderness

This week we begin a new book of the Torah. The first parsha has the same name by which we call the book "Bamidbar", "In the Wilderness". Of course, that's not the name that it's called in tradition. Our Sages called it "Chomesh Hapikudim", "The Book of Numbers" in light of the fact that the book features numerous countings of both the Israelites and the Levites. That we call it Bamidbar is related to the opening words of both the book and parsha, "And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the midbar of Sinai..."

The Netziv in his classic work on the Torah, Hamek Davar poses the question, "Why does the Torah need to tell us that G-d's command came to Moshe in the midbar. We know at that time the People of Israel were camped in the wilderness. It seems superfluous to mention it now." Moreover, we might ask why is the location of G-d's command to Moshe relevant at all?

The Netziv answers that the place where Israel found themselves, in the wilderness, made the command to count the people (the mitzva given to Moshe at that time) relevant. The wilderness would present them with great challenges, even as we see when the story of this Book of the Torah unfolds. There would be danger and travail. In order to meet the challenge of the wilderness journey the people needed to take stock of their forces, number their recruits, even as an army numbers its soldiers in anticipation of battle. In this way the people would travel prepared. Their King, Hashem would lead them. And they would be vigilant and forever on-guard, prepared to meet the challenges that would come.

In keeping with the way we are thinking about Torah text in this blog, personalizing stories to see what we can learn from them for ourselves, I want to refocus the brilliant insight of the Netziv and expand on it.

My reading of the Torah teaches me something about my own journey, in times where I find myself in a spiritual wilderness. How often in our lives do we find ourselves in a place barren of inspiration, a place where few around us seem focused on things that matter, a time or context where all we encounter invites us to indulge in olam hazeh, the empty but alluring glitter of this world of falseness.

In those times and places we are indeed threatened. We struggle to avoid being swept up in the tide of vanity and materialism. We often feel alone. Our prayers become shallow. Our observance seems more a commitment to the past than a response to something alive and immediate within. How do we survive the midbars of our lives?

It is not only to the People of Israel that the Torah is speaking, but to you and me. And not only to the challenge of the wilderness of yester-year, but to the wilderness journey that confronts us in our lives and in every generation.

When we sense the challenge and threat of living in the context of a spiritual void the Torah tell us three very important things. First, recognize and acknowledge where you are. Don't try to pretend that the spiritual wasteland you are in is really a Gan Eden waiting to be discovered. We need to be open and honest with our circumstances. We need to be able to look around us and say, "The time and context are threatening. This is indeed a spiritual wilderness and I am in the midst of it. Whether it be my neighborhood or my work-place, my circle of friends or yes, even my shule, I am here and now in a place that compromises my avodat Hashem."

I cannot over-emphasize how important it is to claim with integrity where one is. The Torah makes clear Israel was in the midbar. All precautions start with the honest and open claiming of one's reality.

Second, in caring for ourselves we need to make an internal inventory. Its no accident that the Torah calls on Moshe to make a count of the people when in the Midbar. We too, in our own
midbar need to take stock of ourselves. We need to know where we are strong and where we are vulnerable. We need to know the things that tempt us and the things we will easily overcome. Rather than attempt to turn the wasteland we find ourselves in into a spiritual paradise we need to marshal our resources and prepare to defend our personal kedusha.

Finally the Torah tells us this week, as Israel confront its wilderness journey in ernest, that the People are to march in a very precise manner, with each tribe rallying around its flag and the camp as a whole having a sort of inter-tribal symmetry. Here too we find our personal call. When in our own spiritual wilderness we need to find an inner balance between all the components of ourselves. More than taking stock of our strengths and weaknesses, we need to now put those strengths and weaknesses in balance and find our center. There are times in our lives when we can and should take risks in order to grow. To do that we need to come off the center and move, at times, out to the edge. Push one aspect of our self or character so we can grow and excel. But now is not that time. When in the midbar we need to be centered. To best meet the challenges without we need to be in harmony within. There is no room for experimentation or pushing the envelope now. When threatened by a wasteland of spirituality we need to be within ouselves and at all times.

Indeed the Torah's message to me is compelling. In order to meet the threat of the spiritual midbar, I need to always know where I am. To be safe when passing through a midbar, I need to know who I am. And to best protect myself in those midbar times of life, I need to live in internal balance, responding to that which confronts me out of my center.

Shabbat Shalom

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