Thursday, June 9, 2011

Location, location, location / Parshat B'haalotcha

My son Danny recently ran his first half-marathon. The family piled into the car at 5 am and drove out to cheer him on. The organizers promised a bus to bring spectators to the 9-mile mark to cheer on the runners, and then to the end point to watch them cross the finish line. Everyone piled onto the buses except us – there was no room left. So we hopped into our car knowing only where the finish line was, but not the route of the race. We realized that if we crossed the path of the race, the road would be blocked off and we wouldn’t be able to get through. So we plugged in our new GPS and within a minute or two it told us exactly where we were, where the finish line was, and allowed us to survey the area to find a best route. Too late! Just as we were approaching a turn-off we were sure would take us out of the path of the race, a police officer stopped us. Everyone in front of us got through. Ours was the first car stopped. I’ll finish this story in a few minutes. For now, however, the experience of having the GPS find us and “look around” to chart a route has me thinking about location.
B’haalotcha is a rich Torah portion with so much worth discussing. This week, however, I want to look “behind” this chronicle of Israel’s early journey through the Wilderness and, with a literary GPS, ask: Where is the Tent of Meeting located? Where is God?
Here are some verses from this week’s parashah. Moses, overburdened by leading the every-complaining Israelites, has reached the point of despair. God instructs him to gather 70 elders and bring them to the Tent of Meeting where God will share some of Moses’ spirit with them so they can share the burden with Moses. As you read these verses, ask yourself: Where is the Tent located? Where is God?
Then Adonai said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place there with you. I will come down and speak with you there… (Numbers 11:16-17a)

Moses went out and reported the words of Adonai to the people. He gathered seventy of the people’s elders and stationed them around the Tent. Then, after coming down in a cloud and speaking to him, Adonai drew upon the spirit that was in him… (Numbers 11:24-25a)

Two of the representatives, one named Eldad and the other Medad, had remained in camp; yet the spirit rested upon them – they were among those recorded, but they had not gone out to the Tent – and they prophesied in the camp. An assistant ran out and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!” (Numbers 11:26-27)

Moses then reentered the camp together with the elders of Israel. (Numbers 11:30)
A careful reading with literary GPS turn on reveals two things:
1. The Tent is located outside the Israelite encampment, at its periphery.
2. God abides in heaven above and descends only to speak with Moses on occasion.

If you’re still not sure, here’s a passage from the Book of Exodus:
Now Moses would take the Tent and pitch it outside the camp, at some distance from the camp. It was called the Tent of Meeting, and whoever sought Adonai would go out to the Tent of Meeting that was outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the Tent, all the people would rise and stand, at the entrance of each tent, and gaze after Moses until he had entered the Tent. And when Moses entered the Tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the Tent, while [God] spoke with Moses. (Exodus 33:7-9)
Pretty clear, isn’t it? The Tent is outside the camp, and God comes down only to speak with Moses when the occasion requires.

Now please consider these passages. Again, using your literary GPS, ask yourself: Where is the Tent located? Where is God?
Adonai spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: The Israelites shall camp, each man with his standard under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance. (Numbers 2:1-2)
The Torah next describes precisely which four tribes were to camp in each cardinal direction with respect to the Tent of Meeting. The Tent is located in the center of the Israelite encampment.

And this:
When Moses had finished the work [of erecting the Tent], the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of Adonai filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of Adonai filled the Tabernacle. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of Adonai rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys. (Exodus 40:33b-38)
Here, once the Tabernacle is completed, God moves in permanently. The hovering cloud reflects God’s continuing, abiding Presence.

What we find in Torah are two very different views. In one, the sacred space is located outside, at the periphery of the community. God comes and goes from the Tent. It is the community that is central.

In the second view, the sacred space is located in the center of the community, and God is permanently ensconced in that space. The sacred space for God is central.

The second view – the Tabernacle located in the center and God permanently ensconced – bespeaks stability and continuity. In short, security and permanence. It prefers the status quo, fixed roles, and hierarchies: we know who may enter each precinct of the Tabernacle or Temple, when, and why, and expect it will always be thus. Why? Because it is the Tabernacle/Temple – the institution and its rituals – that is central.

The first view – the Tabernacle located outside the camp and God visiting as needed – bespeaks flexibility, portability, and freedom. It is a view that invites exploration and change, pushing the boundaries of what is toward what might be. Why? Because it is the community – its pressing needs and concerns – that is central.

Perhaps surprisingly, the first view is of a largely transcendent God (God is mostly “out there” or “above”) and the second view is of an immanent God, residing within the community.

If I were to guess, I would say that the second view came first: When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, there was a centralized cult, with an established priesthood, rituals, and hierarchy of authority. People understood God to be immanent – a permanent dweller in the Holy of Holies. Perhaps they looked back on the Wilderness years through this lens. They accordingly believed that God would always protect Jerusalem. But that did not happen. The First Temple was destroyed in 586 B.C.E. and much of the population was either killed or dragged in chains into Exile in Babylonia – wrenched from their land, bereft of their Temple, in a state of shock. Perhaps they looked back on the Wilderness experience and envisioned a different organization: the community was central, and the Tabernacle at the periphery. God was not permanently in the Holy of Holies (now destroyed) but rather still in heaven, portable, and able to be with the People Israel wherever their journey took them. That view must have been comforting.

We are the inheritors of both views: the view of status quo- stability-continuity, and the view of community-flexibility-portability. Both perspectives are deeply imbedded in our tradition and consequently in our psyches. Both perspectives are continuously in tension. We desire permanence, stability, continuity and security. Yet we are a countercultural religion, always questioning, pursuing freedom, and pushing the boundaries for humankind. As we “move” in our thinking, God accompanies us – our moral and spiritual GPS.

We see these views come into conflict when we face questions like: Can we hold a service outside the synagogue? Is it okay to join a chavurah, or should everyone belong to a synagogue? Are alternative ways of davening and celebrating holy days acceptable, or are they “inauthentic?”

If we are careful not to take either worldview literally, but understand the values, ideals, and hopes behind them, we can find the balance we need – as individuals, in our families, and in our communities – between continuity and change. Both are part of our tradition – each in generous measure. “We should continue to do it this way because we’ve always don it this way” is weak justification, just as is “We should never do it the way others before us did it.” Our religious GPS locates sacred space within and without.

The postscript to my son’s half-marathon: When the police officer stopped us, it was clear we could not arrive at the end point in time to see Danny cross the finish line. Jonah (my younger son) quickly calculated how far we were from the finish line and, based on the time elapsed, predicted that his brother would show up where we were stalled in a few minutes. So I hopped out of the car in time to see my son coming around a curve. I cheered him on and even snapped a half-decent photograph of him. The GPS served us well in the end.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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