Numbers Reflecting on our Journey
Parasha Shlach (Numbers 13:1–15:41)
The section of the Torah we are in now offers a fairly grim portrayal of the religious journey. It depicts a people incapable of consistently living responsively to the Divine encounter. Again and again, both at the foot of Sinai and as they journey into the wilderness, the People of Israel stray from God and from the path of holiness that they have been invited into. In fact, in this week’s parasha, Shlach, the Israelites who left Egypt are condemned to wander and die in the wilderness because of their faithlessness.
Life quests are commonly like this. The beginning is often inspired by a moment or a series of moments of transcendence; but it is hard to remain alive, connected, and responsive to the founding insights and experience. We often lose faith and hope and go astray. When things get bad, we can even feel like we are like the Israelites in this week’s parasha, condemned to seemingly-fruitless wandering, that we are not up to the task, that we will never get “there.”
In such moments, I take inspiration from what happens to the People of Israel during their years of wandering in the wilderness. The Torah barely addresses those 40 years. It leaps from the parents’ incapacity to follow God’s ways to their children being on the threshold of entering the Promised Land at the end of the Book of Numbers and for the entire Book of Deuteronomy.
What does it take to enable our children to complete the journey we have begun? It could be luck. It could also be children more capable than their parents for all sorts of reasons. However, I tend to think it generally takes the modeling and guidance of the parents.
As Parker Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach: “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher . . . As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together.”
As I imagine it, the Israelite elders did not wallow, at least not for too long, in whatever dejection they may have felt at being sentenced to die in the wilderness. Instead, they set about the heroic task of transformation to improve the conditions of their soul, to make their lives more responsive to God and Torah, for their own sake and for their children.
In the face of all of the challenges we face in our confused world, may we all take inspiration from the determination and resilience of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness.
Rabbi Daniel Klein is the Dean of Students for Hebrew College’s Graduate Leadership Programs and 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, Mass., with his wife, Jen, and their two children, Micah and Nora.