Reuters/David W Cerny

Parashat Bamidbar: the wilderness speaks

At 4:30 this morning, my alarm went off. The Jerusalem streets below my hotel window were still dark and quiet. I dressed quickly in lightweight clothes and hiking boots, along with a big, floppy hat to protect my tragically pale Ashkenazi complexion from the 95-degree Middle Eastern sun.

Half an hour later, I joined my bus of 40 Angelenos for one of the quintessential Israel experiences — an early morning trek to Masada.

Masada stands more than 1,300 feet above the Judean desert, looking out over the Dead Sea and beyond to the mountains of Jordan — once the land of Moab, our ancestors’ last stop before crossing into the Promised Land. Standing at the top, as my participants snapped endless selfies and our excellent tour guide spoke about Second Temple-period history, my attention wandered to the vista and the thought that it was in landscapes exactly like this one that our People got their start.

From our earliest origins, 3,000 years ago, the Jews were a desert people. Abraham and Sarah left their home in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and headed out across the wilderness to a new land that God would show them. Later on, their descendants would go into Egyptian slavery and then escape from there into the Sinai Desert — entering into a covenant with God at a desolate, rocky mountain and wandering for 40 years through shifting sands before arriving at almost exactly the spot that I spent the morning looking out upon.

This week begins the reading of Bamidbar, the fourth book of the Torah, whose name means “in the wilderness.” Over its 36 chapters tracing the Israelite journey from Mount Sinai to the edge of Canaan, it retells with poignant honesty the realities of the lives of ordinary people making their way through this harsh and beautiful landscape — their constant anxieties about food and water, their skirmishes with other desert tribes, their exhaustion and frequent discontent, and also their powerful faith that somehow propels them through the 40 years. As the book’s title suggests, the wilderness is not only a backdrop to these accounts, but a main character in them.

The Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, also can be read with different vowels as the word for speech, m’daber. The wilderness spoke to our ancient ancestors, teaching them many of the core spiritual principles of Jewish faith.

Inside our comfortable homes it is easy to take many things for granted. But bamidbar, in the wilderness, we learn to notice and count our blessings.

The wilderness teaches humility. In the desert, it is hard to maintain the illusion that we are the center of the universe. Vast expanses of open land, exquisitely carved by millennia of wind and weather, stretch out in all directions. Gigantic night skies fill with uncountable stars. Wild places give us a sense of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement,” an awe at the grandeur of creation and an intuition of the transcendent dimension of life. As anyone who has stood atop a mountain and watched the rising sun can attest, certain landscapes simply make it easier to believe in God.

The wilderness also teaches gratitude. Inside our comfortable homes it is easy to take many things for granted. But bamidbar, in the wilderness, we learn to notice and count our blessings. We take pleasure in every patch of shade, every drink of cool water, every unexpected moment of rest. My teacher, Rabbi Mervin Tomsky, says that gratitude is the engine of all true spirituality. It is a small wonder that a desert people, practiced in the art of gratitude, would bring so many spiritual gifts to the world.

Finally, the wilderness teaches courage. Setting out into the desert is an act of bravery. Our tradition teaches that the majority of the Israelites elected to stay in Egyptian slavery, rather than face the uncertainty of the journey. We, though, are the daughters and sons of those who were prepared to lay it all on the line, who had the faith in God and themselves that it took to go in search of a Promised Land.

This morning, as I looked out at the desert that gave birth to my ancestors, I could almost hear the midbar speaking to me. I wondered at its austere beauty and felt thankful to be surrounded by good friends, for my full canteen, and even for that silly hat. Most of all, I felt a surge of pride to count among my ancestors those who had the chutzpah to walk through this wild place, who taught me through their example that the world expands in proportion to our own courage.

Ha’midbar m’daber — the wilderness still speaks to us, whispering its timeless wisdom, as it taught our ancestors long ago. 

Opinion: Jewish humility – The road less traveled

Got one of those emails the other day.  You know the ones – those endlessly-circulated, self-congratulatory emails Jews send each about how great we are, touting our Nobel Prizes, our high-tech dominance, how smart we are, how tough we are, even how rich we are, and by implication, how weak and stupid and ordinary everyone else is.

This was the one about the Russian soldiers and their commanding officer.  The CO suggests the coming war would most likely be with China.  “Won’t we be badly outnumbered?” a soldier asks.  Not to worry, the CO replies.  We have the example in the Middle East of a tiny number of Jews, overwhelmingly outnumbered, but continually victorious over their Arab adversaries.  After a moment another soldier asks, “Do we have enough Jews?”

I suspect this email predates the Hezbollah War, where the question of who really won remains highly debated, but this much is sure.  A second war will not go nearly so well, and if Israel lost that war, what will the outcome be next time around.  Israel has made no secret of the extent to which Hezbollah has been re-armed, and the range of their missiles cannot be so finely calibrated.

More immediate,  as the perceived threat from a nuclear armed Iran mounts, and the drumbeats for attack sound accordingly, consequences be damned, it might be good at this point to take a moment for introspection on where all this chest-beating really gets us.

Part of the anti-Israel cacophony resides in the contention that Israel itself, through its actions, is responsible for a certain amount of anti-Semitism in the world.  Some even contend it is the principal cause of that feeling today.  Taking that element out of the debate, if you peel down anti-Semitic complaints to their street-level core, on the anti-Jewish – not anti-Israel – level (and please, they can be separated), I feel confident that the majority response would coalesce around some version of, “they think they’re better than everyone else.”  You could add, obviously, “and they’re not shy about it.”

Perhaps it’s time to really question what this gets us in the long run.

It’s possible, of course, that some day the world will actually be redeemed through our presence.  It’s also possible, since we have free will, that we could screw it up badly.  Nothing screws up a potential positive outcome like arrogance and pride.  Hubris, as we know, is the driving force behind all great tragedy, and our biblical history serves as good an example as any.  Having survived ostracism and persecution, have we now entered a post-assimilation hubris that, Wall St. to Jerusalem, begs, in fact demands, a slapping down?

While we’re at it, is the way we’ve gone about it in Israel the only way it could have been?  Has that path fostered a hubris totally devoid of humility?  Are we drunk with the new, mighty Jew?  Have we passed a point of no return in which we are now rushing headlong into our own destruction, eyes wide open, grinning with enthusiasm, righteous in our cause because, well….look how many Nobel Prizes we’ve won, look look how badly we’ve beaten our enemies up to now.  How can anyone doubt that we’re going about it the right way, but are we in fact being led off the cliff by…ourselves?

Look at the two fast-growing portions of our people – the Orthodox (and within them, the Ultra Orthodox) and at the other end Jews who identify themselves as culturally Jewish but not practicing (the runaway favorite Jdate religious identification).  On the one hand you have the side that would nuke Tehran and Gaza yesterday, and on the other the group that perhaps is adopting a subconscious self-preservation mechanism, distancing themselves as far as possible without leaving the tribe entirely before those guys take us on our own Gallipoli charge.

By the time I finished this, I got another email:  A wealthy Catholic, Muslim, Protestant and Jew are talking.  Catholic:  I’m going to buy Citibank.  Muslim:  I’m going to buy General Motors.  Protestant:  I’m going to buy Microsoft.  Jew:  Forget it.  I’m not selling.

The title was “Jewish Humility.”  Really?

Mitch Paradise is a writer-producer and teacher in Los Angeles.

Sermon of the Year

There are many unique quirks in the Orthodox tradition, but few that I love more than the late-afternoon sermon on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat that falls betweenRosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Here in Pico-Robertson, it’s the sermon many people wait for all year— the one that rabbis often spend months preparing.

Even its time slot is unique. Unlike regular sermons that are part of the morning prayer service, the Shabbat Shuva sermon has its own time and space: late afternoon, when the big meals and rituals are behind us, the light of dusk beckons, and everyone knows there are precious few moments left of their holy day of rest.

Film directors call this end-of-day light the “golden light.” It’s not the bright, naked light of the mid-day, nor the dramatic darkness of the night. It’s the light that bridges those two worlds. Spiritually, it’s the time when the past and the future caress each other — the day is still fresh in our mind, but we can feel the breath of the approaching night.

On Shabbat Shuva, the time of year is also golden: We’ve just left the bright intensity of the Day of Judgment and are about to enter the somber and moody intensity of the Day of Atonement.

It is under this golden, transitional light that hundreds of Torah-observant Jews migrate through the streets of Pico-Robertson every year to hear their respective rabbis give what is affectionately called “the Shabbat Shuva drash.”

It’s a sermon that comes with an ancient pedigree. Over the centuries, the tradition was for rabbis to give only two sermons a year, on Shabbat Shuva and on the Shabbat before Pesach. Today, of course, rabbis of all denominations have become human sermon machines, giving sermons every Shabbat and on all the holidays.

In the Orthodox world, however, maybe as homage to our ancestors, the rabbis still treat their Shabbat Shuva sermons as their most important of the year. There’s a sense of anticipation you don’t feel any other time of the year, even on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

A rabbi friend of mine, in trying to explain the uniqueness of the Shabbat Shuva sermon, has this theory that the sermon itself is part of the process of teshuvah (repentance or return) that is our central spiritual task at this time of year. In this view, the sermon is not just a sermon, but a deep personal act, one that can lead to some uncomfortable moments.

I’ve seen it happen. At Young Israel of Century City, I once saw Rabbi Elazar Muskin, during his Shabbat Shuva drash, express his personal embarrassment at a letter he had received during the previous year. It was from a visitor who did not feel welcomed at his shul. In front of a rapt audience, the rabbi stood there and took the heat. Then, in the spirit of teshuvah, he implored his flock to be welcoming at all times so the shul would never receive a letter like that again.

The most uncomfortable I’ve felt at a Shabbat Shuva drash was last week, when Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation meditated on the touchy subject of ulterior motives in religious practice.

I sat a few feet from the rabbi. While people were still shuffling in, I could see Kanefsky, dressed in a white robe, closing his eyes in deep concentration as he stood at the lectern.

He picked one phrase from the Shabbat prayer — “And purify our hearts to serve You with truth” — and asked: “Do we have a prayer?”

He spent the first 30 minutes making the case that no, we don’t have a prayer. Through the words of King David, Rashi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Maimonides, Isaiah and even Sigmund Freud, he dissected the simple reality that human nature is innately driven by self-interest and ulterior motives.

Yes, even when we live a religious life. We might tell ourselves that our motives are noble and Godly, but deep down, we know we are motivated by more mundane things, like a need for community, a desire to belong and feel accepted, the security of an orderly lifestyle, a craving for honor and recognition, and so on.

Kanefsky made it a point not to denigrate these motives, because they are part of human nature. But Judaism at its best, he explained, helps us transcend our natures in the service of a higher and holier ideal.

This is where it got uncomfortable.

Kanefsky accused himself of often having ulterior motives when he prayed enthusiastically on Shabbat. Why? Because deep down, he knew this behavior was expected of him, and it was hard to separate the motive of “playing to the crowd” from the purer motive of “serving God with truth.”

This might look like someone being too hard on himself, but if you were up close like I was, you could see that Kanefsky meant it. Evidently, he was going through his own teshuvah in front of his flock. He was telling us that while no one will ever have the purity of Abraham, the essence of being religiously observant and of doing teshuvah was to aim for a greater purity in our relationship with God.

To help us in that journey, he enlisted the words of Heschel from “God in Search of Man”:

“This is how we must begin in our effort to purify the self: To become aware of our inner enslavement to the ego, to detect the taints in our virtues, the tinge of idolatry in our worship of God…. The sting of shame is the only pain the ego cannot bear…. To be contrite at our failures is holier than to be complacent in perfection.”

As people filed out of the shul and into the twilight on Pico Boulevard, I had this feeling that the rabbi had given us enough taints, tinges, stings and hopes to last us until the next sermon of the year.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at