Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on 12th Sivan 5775, 30th May 2015
The Israelites are in the desert, Bamidbar, one of the three options for settlement presented to them and us. Behind them is Egypt, ahead of them is Canaan, and they are in the desert. Each has its plusses and minuses What’s Egypt? Mitzraim – Tzar – a narrow place, pressing in with slavery and tsoures that seem to get worse all the time. It’s a place you want to get out of, but still it has a certain stability and familiarity. The Egyptians won’t let you die because they need your labor. It’s the devil you know.
What’s Canaan? Flowing with milk and honey. Summertime and the living is easy. The place you want to be, that you are dreaming of. But it too comes with potential drawbacks, like having to live without your divine safety net and having to act like a real nation with all the consequences this entails.
And what is midbar? Wilderness? A wild place, a place of no structured living. A place where you have to make the most of the least and create something in you that will enable you to recognize and enjoy your own land flowing with milk and honey when you reach it. Midbar is a place of DAVAR – things, or words that must come together.
But how does one go about dispelling the fog that envelopes the desert? Can you do it alone? Can you go out to the Judean Desert and hole up in a monastery or your own cave and find yourself? Not too many individuals can. And as a people, the Israelites of old did not have any preparation for such introspection or the strength of character to build themselves up. They needed help. And they received it.
In this week’s reading we completed the division of the camp and the Levites, with their differentiated jobs in the Tabernacle, and after a sidetrack about nazirites and women under suspicion of adultery, the parsha gives us a detailed account of the inauguration of the Tabernacle. This is more than just a celebration. This is more than just a housewarming party. The Tabernacle is a concrete symbol of the budding growth of the Israelites as a people with a focus, a center, a point to which they can look for guidance and receive support and strengthen their unity. After stops and starts, after the great moments at Sinai and the terrible moments at Sinai, after the threat of divine annihilation has been lifted from them, they can begin to see a glimmer of hope for the future.
This is the consolidation of a center for the building of an Israelite nation and if the people had been a bit more mature, things would have gone much more smoothly.
But can’t we say the same for our lives as well? At some point we find ourselves in a tight place, of our own making or imposed on us by circumstances. We chafe to get out of it. We can picture the situation in which we flow freely and fulfill ourselves and our dreams. We can almost smell the fresh air. But how to get there.
This confusion can hit us when we are teenagers or in our twenties or forties or sixties. We suddenly feel that what we are doing, what we have been doing, what we seem to be destined to do forever – is just not right. Be it relationships, work or general life style. Because it does not give us satisfaction or joy. Or it actually suffocates our senses and sensibilities.
This is when we have to decide whether to do something about it or not. Some people don’t, or won’t because they are afraid to. Some people put their lives on hold and go out on a symbolic retreat where they try to rethink their lives. And then they return, and either make changes or come to terms with what they thought they wanted and in this way they allow themselves to enter their own land flowing with milk and honey. That’s their desert experience.
For the Israelites, a lot of soul searching was necessary. They were starting from below zero in terms of peoplehood but they had two advantages: an extraordinary leader to help them and the support of a divinity who promised to see them through the wilderness, if they had the courage to go on. Some had it, a lot of others did not.
And so it is with most individuals. To succeed, you sometimes need to make hard choices, just as the Israelites had to accept that they were not going to have an assured dinner compliments of Egyptian taskmasters every night but had to believe in a God who would give them manna.
We in modern society have our deserts too. Ecologically, this country has been successful in making the desert bloom. Politically and economically, however, we seem more adept at creating deserts than making them bloom. Already, the newly installed government seems to be taking us back to a type of Egypt – tsouris – in economic and welfare matters rather than trying to calm a perturbed populace after a heated election period. Some of the parties that have come in after being left out to dry in the desert of the opposition for a couple of years seem intent on making up for lost time, with interest. And in general, the god Mamon seems to find new adherents in our midst every week.
But that’s the desert for you. It is what you make of it. We will continue to contemplate our own lives and how to make them better, and follow the dealings of the new government. And if we find that they are not leading us to that land flowing with milk and honey, in terms of concern for its citizens, not to worry. We’ll can always have new elections and start the process all over.
That’s the good news.