Whoever does not make him/herself ownerless, like the wilderness, is not able to acquire wisdom and Torah (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7).
Ever since my first experience with Hitbodedut — a Chasidic practice championed by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, where one goes out into nature alone and pours out one’s heart and soul in prayer to God and saying whatever words need to come out in our native tongues — nature and the wilderness became a place where I can get lost and yet somehow be found. By engaging in this practice, my ego strips away and my higher self, my true self, emerges as I no longer cling to external rewards but hear the calling of my soul. I am able to hear the small whisper of my Higher Power nudging me, inviting me to take the next step along this journey to the promised land of milk and honey.
The entire book of BaMidbar, or “in the Wilderness,” narrates the journeys of the Israelites after the revelation at Sinai. The book begins by taking count or “Numbers” of each tribe and their respective marching order and formation under their respective banners.
It describes a unified nation, with everyone knowing their role and position, with the Mishkan (the traveling Tabernacle) in the middle guiding them. And from the midst of that Mishkan, from the infinitely small space between the two cherubs, a Divine voice emerges.
In this week’s Torah portion, BaHalotecha, we read again about the nature of those journeys, which were determined by the positioning of a cloud that covered the Mishkan:
On the day that the Tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the Tabernacle, the Tent of the Pact; and in the evening it rested over the Tabernacle in the likeness of fire until morning. It was always so: the cloud covered it, appearing as fire by night. And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp. At a command of the Lord the Israelites broke camp, and at a command of the Lord they made camp: they remained encamped as long as the cloud stayed over the Tabernacle (Numbers 9:15-18).
Ah, the Divine GPS system our ancestors had! Wouldn’t that be nice to have now? Each of us, having a clear and present method that tells us what the next right step is. When to get up and go, when to rest.
Or would it be?
If we had that system, if it was so clear, would we lack our choice and free will? Would we choose to surrender to the whims of the cloud and God’s will?
In our Torah portion, it clearly states that the Israelites obeyed this decree. They submitted to the will of God, only traversing and encamping under Divine instruction and guidance.
Whether it was two days or a month or a year—however long the cloud lingered over the Tabernacle—the Israelites remained encamped and did not set out; only when it lifted did they break camp. On a sign from the Lord they made camp and on a sign from the Lord they broke camp; they observed the Lord’s mandate at the Lord’s bidding through Moses (Numbers 9:22-23).
We weren’t “wandering” for 40 years; we were being guided by God’s command. It didn’t matter if it was a good location to rest or how long in between movements, God’s presence by virtue of the cloud indicated what to do.
Nachmanides, the 13th Century Spanish mystic, physician and scholar adds:
This means that if the cloud tarried upon the Tabernacle many days, and the place was not good in their eyes, so that they very much desired and wanted to journey away from there, they were nonetheless not to transgress the will of God (Commentary on the Torah, Numbers 9:19).
The movements of the Mishkan were a practice in surrender. A practice of being able to be comfortable in the discomfort of our lives. No matter how much we want to get out of a specific situation we’re in, we must be patient and let go. And, no matter how weary and tired from the previous day’s journey, we must be prepared and willing to continue on the journey if the cloud lifted. As for them, so also for us: while there was a clear indicator of when to depart and when to rest, there was no clear warning when it would happen.
The wilderness is inviting us to journey. To become ownerless. To discover our passions and recover our purposes.
In the sticky moments of transitions, when uncertainty and fear are raging, are we able to have faith? Are we able to see the expansiveness and possibilities of the Wilderness and our own strength? Can we become “ownerless” in order to receive wisdom and Torah like our Midrash asks us to?
Unfortunately, even with this Divine navigation system, the Israelites’ capacity to surrender was only temporary. In fact, midway through this Torah portion, Moses’ leadership will be tested – and from here on out – with a series of unfortunate events dealing with what appears to be an ungrateful nation filled with fear and euphoric recall of slavery.
This past year, I’ve lost sight of that expansiveness too many times. In the hustle and bustle of work and family life (and a pandemic), I forgot about the practices that feed my soul. This is my job as a spiritual counselor and yet I, too, forget!!! All too often, I lose sight of God’s will, and I begin to think it all revolves around me and on my actions, my will; on my ability to guide, to direct, to lead, to educate. It is so easy to get stuck in narrow-minded thinking, fixed notions, and mental clichés.
I can relate to Moses’ darkest moment of despair, where he feels he must carry the entire burden of a nation alone:
And Moses said to the Lord, “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people upon me? Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant,’ to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people, when they whine before me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!” (Numbers 11:11-15).
It’s just too much, God! Find someone else. I wanna escape. I wanna run. I want an easy life that’s comfortable. A life that doesn’t open me up to criticism and failure. A life that doesn’t require service or taking care of others’ needs. I wanna just be able to do whatever I want, when I want!!!
How do I surrender and find the expansiveness? How do we take the next right action with faith, with hope, and in community?
What I know is that I must carve out time to be alone and pour out my troubles for God to carry. To get lost and then found. To be ownerless, so my soul and will can be claimed by the Holy Blessed One.
For God reminds Moses, “Is the hand of the Lord too short?” (Numbers 11:23).
May we all surrender to the unfolding journey of life.
May we find and lift up those who share the burden of leadership.
And may we notice the signs of our internal Divine GPS urging us to take the next right action.
Shabbat Shalom and expansive travels!