Numbers All Who “Wander” Are Not Lost
Like many of us, I found out about the Orlando massacre on Shavuot. It was a terrifying and terrible moment. Once again, our nation was plunged into mourning over deaths that shouldn’t have happened, at the hands of hatred that shouldn’t exist and automatic weapons that shouldn’t be available. At the same time, the Jewish community was celebrating one of our most joyful holidays, the festival of Shavuot, the chag on which we give thanks for the first harvest of the season, and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
The horror of the killing and the joy of Shavuot were almost impossible for me to bear in the same moment. Moving between great sorrow and great joy, I felt adrift, in the middle of nowhere, struggling to get my bearings on reality.
Appropriately, we are in the midst of the book of Bamidbar (Numbers), literally, “in the wilderness”. This is where we hear stories of the Israelites’ travails before they enter the Promised Land. We usually refer to their movement through the wilderness as “wandering,” which connotes aimlessness without clear goals or guidance–so I was surprised by what I noticed looking through this week’s Torah portion:
On the day the Tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the Tabernacle…in the evening it looked like fire… Thus it was always: the cloud covered it, and it had appearance of fire by night. Whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out; and wherever the cloud settled, there they would camp. By the mouth of God the Israelites traveled, and by the mouth of God they would camp…” (Numbers 9:15-18).
In other words, God was literally showing them when and where to stop. God was leading them. God was there the whole time.
I have read this parashah many times. But I had never reflected on what implications the cloud and fire have for the wilderness narrative–namely, that the people are not wandering aimlessly, without a guide. The Holy One of Blessing is not just there in the camp; She is leading them. And our passage takes great care to say ken yihyeh tamid, thus it would always be (verse 16). God’s guidance doesn’t forsake them after the debacle of the scouts bringing back a bad report. It doesn’t show up only once a week. No–it doesn’t stop for forty years.
In fact, if you look up all the words usually translated as “wander” in the wilderness story, only one is a biblical Hebrew word that actually has that meaning (in Numbers 32:13). Other than that, the verbs actually mean go, walk, or travel. We’ve been miscategorizing the Israelites as wanderers all along
This is a sort of old-time-religion comfort: You thought you were lost, but God was with you the whole time. And on one level, I do find this deeply comforting and powerful, especially thinking about times of great struggle. But our Torah portion hints that this is not the end of the story.
A chapter later, Moshe’s father-in-law (known by many names; here he is called Hovav) springs the news on Moshe that he is heading home. Moshe pleads: “Please don’t leave us! For you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will be our eyes!” (10:31-32)
Huh? If God is leading the people by a cloud and showing them where to camp, why does Moshe need Hovav’s guidance and eyes?
Apparently, it is not obvious to Moshe that God has things under control.
This I can relate to. Great–the Creator of the World is showing up for us as a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. But things do not seem to be going as swimmingly as one might expect. We have hunger, thirst, and violent tribes. There is complaining, plagues, and death.
So Moshe calls in support – his mentor and guide, the man who helped him early on in the wilderness. God wasn’t enough company when the going got rough.
If Moshe had trouble trusting that pillar of cloud and fire, how much more so might we?
Our story teaches us something we need to remember in times of loss and reckoning: On one hand, no matter how dark and tragic our circumstances, no matter how lost in the wilderness we feel, we are connected to the Divine. This doesn’t mean we are saved from grief or fear, or that God can save us or our loved ones from suffering and pain. It does mean that there is some cloudy shade in the heat of day, some bright light in the night. It does mean we are loved by an unending love, and that we are not alone.
But as Moshe powerfully reminds us, God’s love and guidance are not enough. We need human companionship; we need teachers, friends, and family. We need courageous lawmakers and social reformers. This is why in the aftermath of Orlando and the other great struggles we are living through, we are called to be in thick fellowship with other people, people we trust to hold us and guide us, people we trust to take meaningful action in the wilderness and to help us do the same.
Hovav doesn’t actually give an answer to Moshe’s pleas for him to stay. It’s up to us to fill in the blank, not only for him, but for all of us: Through personal and collective challenges, will we stick with each other when the going gets tough? Can we do the hard, enduring work of being a holy people?
Shoshana Meira Friedman, 2014 graduate of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, is assistant rabbi for engagement at Temple Sinai in Brookline, Mass.