Posts Tagged ‘Bmidbar’

Surrounded – and led…

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

Bmidbar - Surrounded - and led...
Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
Visit her gallery
Contact her at shoshbm@gmail.com – originals from this series are available.

B’midbar: Numbers 1:1-4:20

"And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai." (Numbers 1:1)

Why would the Holy One, Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, bring us through the wilderness? Why subject us to more trauma after the centuries of slavery? Why not just bring us quickly and in comfort to the Promised Land? This is what troubled the Sages in this midrash and so many other midrashim surrounding this verse.

Here we have a proposition, which I have abbreviated somewhat: it wasn’t bad at all! We had the superb delicacy of manna, sweet water from Miriam’s well, and the comfort and direction of the Eternal One! What more could we ask for?

After making this proposition, the Sages argue about what seems to be a very trivial point. Of course, as always, much lies beneath the surface. Listen:

This recalls the Scriptural verse: O generation, see ye the word of the Lord: Have I been a wilderness unto Israel? Or a land of thick darkness? etc. (Jer. 2:31). The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, ‘Ye said to Moses: “Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” (Num. 21:5); but was I at all like a wilderness to Israel, or did I at all act towards them as a wilderness? … Did I not assign to you three special tutors, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam? It was due to the merit of Moses that you ate the manna… Moreover, it was due to the merit of Aaron that I set clouds of glory about you; as it is said, He spread a cloud for a screen (Ps. 105:39). …And again, the well was due to the merit of Miriam, who sang by the waters of the Red Sea…’

How many clouds of glory encircled Israel in the wilderness? R. Hoshaya and R. Josiah differed on this point. R. Josiah said, Five; four towards the four points of the compass, and one that went in front of them. R. Hoshaya said, Seven; four towards the four points of the compass, one above them, one below them, and one that advanced ahead of them three days’ journey and struck down before them the snakes and the scorpions, the fiery serpents and the rocks. If there was a low place, the cloud raised it; a high place it lowered, making all level; as it is said, Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill shall be made low (Isa. 40:4).

Midrash Rabbah – Numbers I:2

What is the matter with Hoshaya and Josiah? What does it matter whether there were five or seven clouds? Let’s look at what they are suggesting in common first, and then dive more deeply into their differences.

Earlier in the midrash, we are told that G!d set “clouds of glory” all around the people. We know that G!d also led us through the wilderness, but if these clouds of glory are “screens,” how could we be led?

The two sages pose two similar solutions: we had enough to surround us, plus one more: one to lead us. Hoshaya’s number – five – implies that we are surrounded on all sides, and yet led by another cloud, somehow visible through the others.

Josiah spots two problems, and solves each of them: first of all, are we surrounded if there are no clouds above or below us? No, of course, so make it seven.

The second problem – how we see a cloud through clouds – is solved by the action of the cloud: it makes the way sweet and easy for us, removing obstacles of geography as well as dangers of nature. We would know where to go, Josiah suggests, by following the smooth path.

Straightforward enough. So let’s take it deeper.

There is a dilemma: how can we be surrounded by the experience of G!d and still be active in the world? Imagine being in the loving embrace of our mother – why would we ever want to leave? And yet, if we do not, how will we grow and mature?

The answer is we can, and do, do both. We can recall that love that was given to us by our mother, even when she is not physically present, and be sustained by it as we move in the world. When we do, we find that the world is a little bit sweeter, a little bit smoother. We find strength in that love – when we remain open to the experience of it, even as we travel independently in the world.

But how about a little deeper still!

Recall the mention of the numbers six and seven from last week: how we added a single day to the secular six and made seven – Shabbat. It is no coincidence that the Mesopotamians treasured six, I am convinced, at least in part because there are six cardinal directions about us, two for each of our three spatial dimensions. To get to the seventh direction, we must embark along a different dimension. Call it time, if you will, for Shabbat is certainly a different dimension in time. I prefer to call it Spirit, for that is a markedly different dimension in our lives. And yet that dimension of Spirit is deeply interwoven with our spatial, secular world, permeating it always, ready to be perceived and entered, when we open ourselves to it.

May we each find the time to infuse our lives with that added dimension of Spirit, and so find ourselves surrounded – and led – by G!d’s love.