Numbers Pushing On Through the Wilderness
Parashat Chukkat, Numbers 19:1-22:1
It has become a cliché that in life, we should focus on the journey, not the destination—we are advised to “enjoy the ride” and “pick more daisies.” It is easy to imagine ourselves within the quintessential image of this sentiment: a carefree, smiling person, basking in the sunshine, driving down an open road with car windows open or the top down, wind blowing through her hair.
The Torah could be read as endorsing this approach to life. From the expulsion from Eden, to God’s great call to Abraham to “go forth,” to the Israelites forty years of wandering in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land, the Torah appreciates life, and a life of meaning, as a journey more than a destination. Jewish tradition solidifies the centrality of this motif with our cycle of sacred biblical reading: Each autumn we start the Torah at the beginning of Genesis, reading consecutive portions of the Torah each week until we complete Deuteronomy—and right when you might think we will go on to the Book of Joshua and into the Promised Land, we go back to the beginning, starting the cycle again, with Genesis and another year of wandering.
We are seemingly a tradition of journey, not arrival. But as many passages of the Torah make clear, the journey is no joyride.
Just read Chapter 20 of the book of Numbers, in this week’s parasha, Chukkat, for evidence of the Torah’s clear-eyed, unsentimental understanding of what it is to be on a journey. The chapter begins with the death of Miriam, continues with a water crisis that induces yet more Israelite complaining and longing to return to Egypt, progresses to Moses and Aaron being condemned not to go with the people into the Land of Israel because of their handling of the grumbling, and concludes with the death of Aaron. In a mere 22 verses, Moses loses his siblings (his two closest companions), endures another round of rebellion, and finally—heartbreakingly—is denied the opportunity to personally fulfill the dream to which he has devoted his life.
While a journey can be liberating and even carefree at times, Numbers Chapter 20 captures a fuller, grittier reality – that the journey can be grueling, harsh, painful, uncertain, and unfulfilled. Yet, amazingly, Moses offers no response to these traumatic events. He is silent and, seemingly, undeterred.
What wisdom about traversing the wilderness of our own lives can we hear in Moses’ silence?
These days, I hear Angela Duckworth echoing from Moses’ persistent footsteps. Duckworth, the author of the New York Times bestseller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, studies human motivation and success.
In her short and riveting TED Talk, Duckworth recounts her research findings about people in challenging situations and what tends to make them successful within their particular context. In all of the groups she studied – cadets at the West Point Military Academy, new teachers working with at-risk communities, salespeople in private companies, and children in the National Spelling Bee – the “significant predictor of success,” she says, is not skill, physical ability, or intelligence. It is grit.
“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals,” Duckworth says. “Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
More than talent, we need tenacity to be successful – to stay focused on where we want to be headed in life, and not let the inevitable obstacles and challenges deter us. In fact, Duckworth’s data suggest that natural ability and grit are often inversely related – that talent alone not only won’t get us to where we want to go, but may possibly impede the cultivation of the necessary perseverance to get there.
Jewish tradition has a wonderful, dark but beautifully redemptive teaching on this topic: “Rabbi Tarfon says, the day is short, the work is great, the workers are lazy, but the reward is great, and the master of the house is knocking [at your door].” (Pirket Avot 2:15)
In the face of great challenge and uncertainty about human capacity to meet the world’s needs, not only is there great benefit in mustering the fortitude for the demands of the hour, but, says Jewish tradition, God is knocking. Which is to say that there is a force within and maybe beyond our human hearts that propels us forward, urges us to get up and go on, and pushes us ahead on the journey of our lives,—enabling us to live, through the gift of grit. As with all things Divine, the challenge is to let God in – to make room for and thus tap into the propulsive power of this Force.
These days, as we are evermore aware of the seeming endlessness of the arc of the moral universe about which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke hopefully—how arduous and overwhelming it is to stay on track as it bends towards justice—I take inspiration from Moses’ grit. On his great journey, though he certainly had moments of doubt, he persevered, day in and day out, guiding the people relentlessly, ceaselessly, towards a world of promise and hope.
Rabbi Daniel Klein is the Director of Admissions for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School and the Rabbi in Residence at The Boston Synagogue. A lifelong seeker, Rabbi Klein lived, studied and worked in Chicago, San Francisco and New York before finding his way back home to Boston as a rabbinical student. Rabbi Klein was ordained by Hebrew College in 2010 and now lives in his hometown of Newton, MA with his wife Jen and their two children, Micah and Nora.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.