Saturday, May 19, 2012

From wilderness to mountaintop / Parshat B'midbar and Shavuot

People who know how everyone else should live their lives astound me.  I find it’s a full-time occupation figuring out my own life. Maybe there’s a computer for this? The supercomputer “Deep Thought” in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is constructed by a race of hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings. Its purpose is to provide the “ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.” Good deal. Too bad it’s fiction.

This week we open the Torah to Sefer B’midbar, the Book of Numbers, which largely recounts the Israelites’ 40-year trek through the Wilderness in pursuit of answers to the questions put to Deep Thought. In addition, as we bid goodbye to shabbat, we usher in Shavuot, which celebrates Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah) at Mt. Sinai. From the Wilderness to the mountaintop -- shall we say from questions to answers?

Ah, but it’s not that simple. Torah is not the Jewish version of “Deep Thought,” generating answers to any question posed. Torah is actually more than “Deep Thought.”

It’s curious that Torah takes us from the creation of the cosmos just up to the border of Eretz Yisrael. In all of Torah, with the exception of the ill-fated episode of the spies reconnoitering the Land, no one sets a toe in the Land of Israel. Perhaps that is because we’re always in the Wilderness -- always asking questions, always searching for answers: To what purpose our lives? Where should we invest our energies? What is the meaning of our experience? How do we make ethical decisions? And even when we think we’ve found some answers, we realize that they only generate more questions.
We might hope that Psalm 107:4-8 encapsulates our life experience:

Some lost their way in the wilderness, in the wasteland;
they found no settled place.
Hungry and thirsty, their spirit failed.
In their adversity they cried to the Lord,
And he rescued them from their troubles.
He showed them a direct way to reach a settled place.
Let them praise the Lord for his steadfast love,
His wondrous deeds for humanity;
For he has satisfied the thirsty,
filled the hungry with all good thing.

The seemingly simplistic mechanism described in the psalm is not how the world works. God doesn’t swoop down and solve our dilemmas. Torah doesn’t churn out answers to every question. But perhaps that’s not how we are to understand the poet’s verses.

Let’s start with our parashah. B’midbar devotes three chapters to a census taken in the Wilderness:

Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. (Numbers 1:2)

 The people are counted, tribe by tribe, clan by clan, and detailed tribal enrollment numbers are recorded. Why? Because, I would suggest, life is with people: living in family and community, forging relationships, and working them out. It is in the context of relationships that we find purpose and make our lives meaningful. It is in the context of relationships that we face the most challenging ethical conundrums and questions about meaning. We need to take a census of the people in our lives, the relationships that constitute our world.

But whence the answers? We might hope to find them in Torah. From the Wilderness to the mountaintop where one can see everything -- it’s a nice image but Torah is not “Deep Thought” for anyone who thinks deeply.

Zohar, the seminal work in Jewish mysticism, teaches that Torah will lead us to answers, but it’s not a simple computerized process.

R. Shimon said: “Woe to the human being who says that Torah presents mere stories and ordinary words! If so, we could compose a Torah right now with ordinary words, and better than all of them. To present matters of the world? Even rulers of the world possess words more sublime. If so, let us follow them and make a Torah out of them. Ah, but all the words of Torah are sublime words, sublime secrets!... Woe to the wicked who say that Torah is merely a story! They look at this garment and no further. Happy are the righteous who look at Torah properly! As wine must sit in a jar, so Torah must sit in this garment. So look only at what is under the garment. All those words and all those stories are garments.  (Zohar 3:152a)

For the mystics, Torah holds answers, but they are secrets encoded in its words and available only through meditation and interpretation. For those of us who are not mystics, we can take this meaning from the Zohar: Torah is not a book of quick, easy answers. Its words must flow through us, enabling us to ask the right questions and find our own truths.

Parshat B’midbar affirms this. B’midbar concludes (chapter 4) with instructions on breaking camp. The levitical Kohathite clan is charged with porterage. The Tabernacle’s sacred objects are to be covered with blue, crimson, and purple cloths, and dolphin skins. The objects sit in garments, as the Zohar tells us Torah does. Coverings are tantalizing. They invite us to rip them off to find what is concealed beneath.

B’midbar ends with these words:

The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: Do not let the group of Kohathite clans be cut off from the Levites. Do this with them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects: let Aaron and his sons go in and assign each of them to his duties and to his porterage. But let not [the Kohathites] go inside and witness [inside the sanctuary] lest they die. (Numbers 4:17-20)

We never see or know it all. We’re always “outside” to some degree. But did you expect all the answers before you die?

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, after 7.5 million years of continuous computation, Deep Thought returns the ultimate answer: 42. But the Ultimate Question remains a mystery! Perhaps Douglas Adams provides genuine Torah here: we may think we have the answers, but did we really ask the right questions? So too the Psalmist provides great wisdom. God provides food and drink, not in the conventional, simplistic way the Zohar warns against, but in a far deeper way: Torah, our mayim chaim (“life-giving waters”) helps us shape our questions, as well as find answers that generate more questions, sending us searching for more truths. We climb higher up Sinai, deeper into God. Perhaps that’s the whole point. The Jewish approach to truth is to cherish your questions even more than your answers.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

1 comment: