November 16, 2018

Through the Wilderness

It’s hot and smoggy. The cooling breeze of nightfall won’t arrive for hours. Stuck in endless urban traffic, the radio news ticks off the day’s toll of rape, murder and mayhem, governmental ineptitude and unfathomable moral lunacy. Welcome to the wasteland. Welcome to Bamidbar.

In Exodus, the Torah presents images of God’s saving power: With a mighty hand and outstretched arm is Israel rescued from slavery in Egypt. Leviticus lifts us to that pristine moment of holy oneness at Sinai, inviting us to the life of a holy nation, a kingdom of priests. “You will be holy as I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Now we resume the journey. But before we can enter the Promised Land, we must cross through the wilderness, the midbar.

Twelve spies are sent to glimpse the Promised Land and bring back samples of its wonders. Instead, they return with fear, disenchantment and despair: “The land that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its inhabitants. All the people we saw were giants. … We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:32-33)

Envious of power and wealth, Moses’ cousin Korach leads a rebellion to overthrown Moses. Deftly, Korach twists the words of the covenantal promise: “They rallied against Moses and Aaron and said to them, You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3).

In this week’s portion, the blow comes closer to the heart: Miriam, the sister of Moses and voice of his song, dies. Aaron, Moses’ brother, partner and the voice of his words, dies. The people whine for water. Out of rage and frustration, Moses defies God’s instruction to speak to the rock. He smashes it with his rod. Then the dream dies. “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12)

Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers, offers a guided tour through the human wilderness – the dark side of the human soul. Its stories are not of heroic triumph but of failure, dissension and conflict. Bamidbar shows us our shadow – our fear, envy, despair, infidelity, and rage. As Leviticus lifts us up to holiness, Bamidbar parades before us our endless capacity for evil.

We Americans quickly grow impatient with this sort of literature. We like our heroes in white and our villains in black. We don’t want to be reminded of our own evil. America, wrote novelist Henry James, is a hotel civilization. A hotel – a room you leave sloppy and unkempt in the morning, returning in the evening to find it all neat and tidy. You never know, nor do you really care, how it got that way. You never face the messy dark side, the shadow. Instead, you move on. The most powerful myth in American culture is the myth of the frontier. “Go West, young man!” Go west, and escape the evil you’ve created. Go west and start over, start fresh. Mobility is the American idea of freedom, and Americans are drawn to the lure of the road. “Everything good,” wrote Emerson, “is on the highway.” Walt Whitman sings the song of the open road. Jack Kerouac takes us “On the Road.” Crosby and Hope were on “The Road.” The ’60s generation were easy riders. Bruce Springsteen is “Born to Run.”

At our own peril, teaches Bamidbar, do we ignore the dark side. The only way to the Promised Land is through the wilderness. Turn away from the shadow, turn away from our capacity to do evil, turn away from the encounter with our rage, fear, jealousy and despair, and we become trapped in that wilderness. We become slaves to our own darkest impulses. Our dreams turn into nightmares. Our inventions turn into monsters. Our families and communities become desolate wastelands. We become strangers to ourselves.The trek is dangerous. What will sustain us through this wilderness? What will keep us from turning back? We have the story, the book. Moses has been here before. He found the way through to the Promised Land. By following him, we will too.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom.