The exodus from Egypt was one of the great revolutions in human history. A group of slaves escaped one of the most powerful empires in the world. It was terrifying, but exciting at the same time. It promised a new beginning and a new promise of hope for the people.
Our Torah portion this week takes place a year after the exodus from Egypt. The excitement is over, but the goal of the promised land is a long way away. This is really the hard part. How do you maintain a community, and a family and an individual sense of self under these conditions. This is what our portion is really about.
The name of it is Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness.” It does not mean desert. A wilderness may have food and water in one place, but not the other. It might have good weather at one time, but not at others. It may be empty in places, or filled with animals, or even other people. Some of these people are friendly some are not. Wilderness is beyond our control. Our ability to find meaning in the wilderness is within our power.
Most of life is the wilderness. There are many beginnings that are exciting. Graduations, new jobs, weddings. After a while, the adrenalin wears off, but you still have the responsibilities. Things don’t always go as planned. You don’t always reach your goal.
A lot of people refuse to believe that life is more wilderness than new beginning and suffer for it. Not only do people feel frustrated about what they don’t have, they miss all the wonderful things they do have.
The torah recognizes that there is only one really way to confront the wilderness, and that is by having a spiritual center in our lives. God tells moses to build the tabernacle, the mishkan, the place of God’s presence, and to place the tribes equally around it. The tabernacle is literally the center of their lives, and goes where they go.
We have access to a variety of spiritual centers. Some are communal, like synagogues and schools and community centers. Important to have real places to go to at all times in our lives.
Family and home is also a spiritual center, or at least we should be trying to make it so. There are all different kinds of family today, and we have to understand and embrace that. This world is too hard to go through alone. Every person in a family needs to feel loved and safe. We cannot just assume that this is true within our own families. We need to have real conversations with each other about how to make our families into centers of unconditional support and love even when we do not agree with each other on everything.
The most important spiritual center we need to develop is within ourselves. We need to recognize that within us already is the deepest potential for spirituality, because a spark of God is within each person. Sometimes we think that we need to learn all the prayers and study all the texts and follow every commandment. We feel there is some sort of goal to be achieved if we work hard enough. We feel there is a way out of the spiritual wilderness, and that we will have all the answers and always be happy. There are religious leaders who sell this idea. I believe they are doing a people a terrible disservice. People tend to feel like failures because they cannot achieve this level of spirituality.
Notice, though that the Torah ends before the people cross into the Holy Land.
Judaism is not about having all the answers. It is not about reaching religious perfection or salvation. It is about providing a center and balance to our lives that helps us appreciate every moment of our lives even when things do not go according to plan.
There are so many things we can do. Every act of kindness might be the one thing a person needed to get through the challenge of that day. Every prayer offered, no matter how small or informal, might be the thing that gives a person strength to go on. Every word of encouragement to someone who feels they failed can give them the courage to try again.
Judaism, then, is about helping everyone through their own journey through the wilderness, letting them know they are loved know matter what, that they have a home and center in this world. We can make this wilderness of a world that we live in feel like the promised land.