Discovering Ourselves and Each Other in our Wilderness Journey

June 7, 2024

This week’s Shabbat Message is based on my remarks from the TOS Annual Meeting on June 5, 2024

In just five days, we will, according to the Jewish calendar, complete our journey from liberation (Passover) to the receiving of Torah (Shavuot). During this time, we count the Omer, and, it is no coincidence that just as we approach Shavuot and conclude our counting and commemorate receiving the Torah in the desert wilderness, we begin the Book of Numbers (named for the various censuses described), the fourth book of Torah. 

The Hebrew name for the Book of Numbers is B’midbar, which means “in the wilderness.” For most of the journey of Torah, our people were wilderness wanderers. Shavuot commemorates a critical moment in that wilderness journey, when our ancestors accepted the role of active, responsible partner in a sacred relationship with the Divine – in a covenant to be kept throughout the generations. 

We receive Torah anew each Shavuot and we read it again and again. We are active partners in an ongoing relationship of responsibility to that which transcends us. We live out that responsibility by being responsible to one another. Our tradition calls us to place ourselves in the story of our key historical moments (for example at Passover when we read that in every generation every Jew is to see themselves as if they themselves were freed from Egypt); so, we accepted Torah millennia ago, and in every generation we continue to accept this covenantal responsibility, as we step up to fulfill our responsibility to the individuals and communities to which we are bound. In that ancient wilderness and now thousands of years later, we are always in the process of developing as Am Yisrael – the people of Israel –  here to serve and support one another, which is, ultimately, to serve the Infinite.

This year has, as so many of the last several years have, felt at times like a vast and overwhelming wilderness. But the wilderness is the place we become – the place we become a people; the place we receive Torah and accept the responsibility of living its values of bringing compassion and justice and love and healing into this world.

In this Shabbat’s Torah portion, we read about the individual tribes of Israel – each to be counted, each with its particular place to be rooted whenever and wherever the Israelites encamp. It seems that even in our desert wanderings, we learned that a community is made up of communities.  

Our community, like that ancient community of Israelites, is rooted in relationships between individuals and between groups. We read again and again that the individual gifts of every Israelite were critical to the construction of the mishkan – the portable tabernacle. Just as important as those individuals are the tribes, each with their own roles and gifts. It is this active participation – this giving of what one individual or group can uniquely give – that enables the building and sustaining of a strong community. This is just as true for us today:  Each of us counts (is counted!), each of our household units, each small group or committee of like-minded folks– all are critical to the ongoing creation and sustaining of the TOS community from generation to generation.

Inspired by this week’s Torah portion, the upcoming Shavuot holiday, and in honor of last night’s Annual Meeting, I wrote this poem, shared below. I share it with you along with my gratitude for being on this journey with you.

A Poem for The Wilderness Journey

In this place of becoming
belonging, even 
to a vastness which calls us to find grounding in its windswept canvas
so seemingly blank and empty until we dare to step closer
which is to move forward 
like Nachshon into the waters when we first dared dream of freedom
now all of us
in every generation
called to step forward 
which is to step closer
which is to see

In every generation
in every moment
some fearful
some daring
some feeling there is nothing left to lose
some, that there is nothing to gain

So we hold each other up and move
in this strange new wholeness that we are:
Am Yisrael
belonging to and serving no one but God
by belonging to and serving one another
stepping closer into the overwhelming apparent emptiness
we discover ridges and facets, colors and textures, details and depth we could not have seen from afar.
this richness asks us to step closer
to become creators with the Creator
to begin our journey in a wilderness that is silent because it is full of the Infinite
to recognize within the silence a call to listen closely 
to the voices made of the One Voice
to find the faces made of the Infinitely-faceted One
To make footprints, meaning, out of the countless grains of sand
to be a blessing
which is to become
which is to belong
to each other
and to the One

Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman