Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Last Shabbat our Jewish community around the world began a new book of Torah: B’midbar, meaning, in the wilderness. I prefer to call this book, “Into the Wilderness.” Here we go, on a journey filled with challenges of all sorts: physical, mental, psychological and spiritual.
So what is this place, “the wilderness?”
The wilderness contains all possibilities. It is a place and time of dreaming and of dreams, a time of movement and resting, of journeying with the sacred as our guide.
Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabba
R. Berachia said: This verse was spoken by the wilderness. The wilderness said, I am wilderness, and I am beloved! For all the good things in the world are hidden in me- as it said, : I will plant cedars and acacias in the wilderness” ( Isa. 41:19) God gave them to me in trust and when He asks them of me, I will return the trust in full, and I will become full of sap with good deeds, and I will sing in God’s presence”
As Aviva Zornberg states, the wilderness is a “world of imaginative reality”, a place where “a hidden reality comes into being.”
At this time in the history of this community, the RJC is about to enter yet another new stage, with a new leader. Like the traveling camp we will read about in this Torah portion, that will disassemble the Tabernacle, transport it and then re-assemble, many times over throughout their journeys, we too will discover that the holy exists in our community regardless of changes in form and structure. It is the community who will guard, lift aloft, and carry forward all of its sacred parts no matter where the journey leads.
In last week’s portion the guidelines are given for how the community will camp
and this week we shall read: here is how you will move forward.
Two of the levitical clans, the families of Gershon and Merari receive wagons to transport the Tabernacle structure, but the Kohatites clan who are tasked with transporting the most holy objects, will lift them up and carry them directly upon their shoulders. Incidentally, the verb Naso, the name of this parashah, means to lift up.
The sacred will travel with the people into the wilderness of the unknown. The Levites will take apart all of the pieces of the Tabernacle. The most holy objects will be raised up on their shoulders for all to see as they journey forth, and then the parts will be re-assembled when the camp finds a new footing.
This it is not necessarily an easy task.
To hold aloft the sacred, in a time and place of transition, requires inner strength, focus and patience.
The Mussar Masters teach us that the quality of savlanut- which mean to bear something, to have patience,is a spiritual quality. The capacity to bear the holy, and to lift it up, is a sacred task and it is the spiritual work we are engaged with. Journeying through the wilderness of our times requires that we develop the quality of patience, while we continue to bear the holy and lift it up for all to see.
Mark Margolius writes: As our ancestors prepared to leave Mount Sinai, they likely wondered how they could preserve the sense of deep connection and trust they’d experienced in that place, as they encountered the inevitable challenges and setbacks of the journey ahead. They had already built the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, as a kind of portable Mt. Sinai to accompany them in their travels. But only in this parashah, as they learn the skills of “lifting” and “bearing” the components of the Mishkan—the “weight of life”—do they learn how to maintain that deep sense of connection and holiness in the midst of everyday living.
We are living through times of great transition and change. Our little microcosm of the RJC is part of a greater sea change in consciousness and practices. It is a time to move forward, for sure, but to do so with our Jewish values held aloft. It is easy to get lost in the wilderness during a sandstorm. All the signposts, few as they are, are obscured by blowing wind. We are living through such a time of disorientation and blowing wind, but Torah is our compass.
When we lift up the sacred, that is, the good and holy in each other, we strengthen one another on the journey. As we all move forward into a wilderness of sorts, may we find the strength and patience to bear the holy, to lift up the sacred, and lift up one another in the process. This is the power of a Jewish community.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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