Potty training is a wilderness. Where is the closest bathroom? Is there a line? Will people kindly let the three-year-old to the front of the line? Will she notice she needs to go? Or do we keep her on a timed schedule? Will she pee on the floor of Banana Republic?
There is wisdom out there for best practices: “naked weekend,” or “the Cheerio method,” for example. But those best practices change every twenty years. And besides, every kid is different.
So we prepare. We have extra pairs of underwear and pants. We keep an eye out for the nearest bathroom at all times. We do what we can, but ultimately – despite preparation – accidents happen because she’s learning (and so are we).
This is the wilderness: a journey for which we prepare, but cannot control.
Living in recovery is a wilderness. There are lots of questions and lots of methods, which also change with time. Each of us is different. So we prepare. We use the methods and the tools, but ultimately – even with preparation and the promise of freedom – we make mistakes. Sometimes, those mistakes are minor – like telling myself “I deserve this” when I order too much takeout. Sometimes, they are major – like relapsing and even dying.
We can prepare for the wilderness – build and use our tools of recovery – but we can’t be perfect. And when I start to think I am perfect in my recovery, that’s when I’m ripe for those mistakes.
In this week’s parashah, BaMidbar – literally “into the wilderness” – the Israelites prepare to leave Mount Sinai and travel into the unknown. They have received the Torah, the instructions, the best methods and ideas. They have accepted a commitment to that Torah and to God.
Moses takes a census of the people. Each tribe is organized to travel and camp in a certain configuration. The Levites are tasked with breaking down and rebuilding the mishkan under the instructions of the Priests. Everyone has their place and their purpose for entering the unknown. They are as prepared as anyone in these circumstances can be.
But as we know, throughout this journey through the wilderness, the Israelites slip. They complain about food and water. They complain about and even rise up against Moses’ leadership. They lose faith in God’s promise to guide them to the rich land of milk and honey. They make mistakes.
But God does not abandon them. Even in their imperfections and lapses, God’s Presence continues to be with them.
Why would God stay with us when we can’t seem to get it right?
Because God knows we are human. God knows that, even with preparation, we won’t get it right. God knows we have “accidents.” That’s why t’shuvah was created before even the earth itself. Turning and returning through t’shuvah is part of the fabric of the Universe and the fabric of humanity because we make mistakes. And t’shuvah gives us a way back to living well, to living in recovery.
So maybe, just maybe, we can give ourselves permission to be human, too.
After the violence of this week in Jerusalem and throughout Israel and Palestine, I am reminded of this prayer written by mothers, mothers who’ve cared for, loved, protected and defended. As a mom, I’ve learned that my love, no matter how big, can’t protect my daughter. And my heart calls out to all the parents trying to protect their children.