Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
June 9, 2001 18 Sivan 5761
Rabbi Matt Berkowitz is a rabbinic fellow at The Jewish Theological Seminary
Abraham Joshua Heschel writes eloquently that the supreme aspiration of religion is to inspire each one of us, in the words of the psalmist, 'to lift up your eyes and see.' Heschel explains: "The grand premise of religion is that man is able to surpass himself; that man who is a part of this world may enter into a relationship with God who is greater than this world; that man may lift up his mind and be attached to the absolute; that man who is conditioned by a multiplicity of factors is capable of living with demands that are unconditioned." The challenge, then, is to identify one's path toward a meaningful and sanctified life, guided by one's relationship with God.
This week's parashah, B'ha·alot'kha, is instructive in suggesting a number of ways that God may potentially lead us to fuller lives. All of these ways are illustrated powerfully in the ways that God leads the Israelites through the desert en route to the Land of Israel. The Torah speaks of three ways that God led us on this perilous journey — two in this week's parashah and a third from the Book of Exodus. I would like to use these images as metaphors for the ways in which we can be guided by God in our own lives.
To begin, Numbers 9:15–23 describes the Israelites' journey through the desert on their way from Egypt to Israel. God guided the Israelites by a cloud during the day and a fire in the evening. The Torah relates, "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" (Numbers 9:17). Although the Torah states that it was at the 'command of the Lord' that the Israelites journeyed, God's will is not expressed verbally. Instead, as in Egypt, God's method of communication was through signs and wonders. More specifically, the wonder the Israelites experienced was one born of nature. A cloud and fire were the means by which God communicated that the Divine Glory was present over the Tabernacle and in the midst of the people. Nature communicated God's greatness and Presence to the Israelites, who would dwell wherever they sensed the Divine Presence. For many of us today, nature continues to be our path to a relationship with God. Indeed, as Heschel writes, "The whole earth is full of His Glory. The outwardness of the world communicates something of the indwelling greatness of God, which is radiant and conveys itself without words."
A second means through which God leads us is suggested by Numbers 10:33. There we read, "They marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord traveled in front of them on that three days' journey to seek out a resting place for them." A rabbinic teaching elaborates further: "Rabbi Judah Bar Ilai taught: Two arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness — one in which the Torah was placed, and the other in which the Tablets broken by Moses were placed." These passages complement each other magnificently — communicating to us that the text (i.e., the Torah) served as a guide to the Israelites in the desert. Just as the Torah was the blueprint by which God created the world, so too was it a map by which the Israelites were led to the Land of Israel. Learning and living words of Torah is yet another way that God guides us today. Simply by opening our sacred scripture, we are blessed with a direct link to God. We raise our consciousness and become more attuned to God's words and world. They in turn become the signposts by which we may live and enrich our lives.
Torah suggests yet a third way by which God leads us. In Exodus 23:20, God declares, "Here, I am sending an angel before you to care for you on the way, to bring you to the place that I have prepared." An angel leads the way for the Israelites in the desert. A heavenly intercessor is sent by the word of God to protect and lead the people. This means by which the Israelites were led speaks to us in a profound way today. Not only do we find God through nature and Torah, but we also find God through spiritual means. Whether it be through participating in a spirited service, humming a Carlebach niggun (melody), or engaging in kabbalistic meditation, the spiritual realm is a compelling way of approaching God and feeling God's Presence.
While all of these ways of God's guidance may speak to each individual, one in particular may be more compelling than another. Just as God led the Israelites in different ways, so too does God lead each of us in a different way — consonant with the image in which God created us. For some, it may be nature; for others, it may be delving into text; and still for others, it may be passionate spirituality. Ideally, we should balance all three while at the same time realizing that one is most meaningful for each of us. Truly, as the rabbinic maxim declares, shivim panim laTorah — there are seventy faces to the Torah. That is to say, there is a multiplicity of interpretations to any one word or verse in the Torah. What is important is that your voice be heard in the symphony of interpreters. May each of us find the particular way in which God leads us — and may we all merit reaching a land flowing with milk and honey.
With wishes for a Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Matt Berkowitz