A Time to Move & A Time to Rest
June 12, 2020
Dear Holy Friends,
We hope and pray that this correspondence finds you in good health and managing our difficult circumstances. I want to remind you to feel free to call me or email me at any time (contact information below) and to share your experiences, theological questions and even, to ask, how we, as your community, can support you! If you know anyone experiencing health issues, please allow us to pray for them. If you know someone who needs our support, please contact me or the dedicated officers of our shul.
This week’s Torah portion of Beha’a’lot’cha is found in the Book of Numbers and contains a sentence with which regular “shul-goers” are highly familiar. This sentence, which describes the moving of the Holy Tabernacle through the desert, is incorporated into our liturgy as we remove and then return the Torah to the Holy Ark. It reads from Bemidbar 10:35-36 as follows (and I know you will be singing out loud the first sentence as you read this!):
When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance, O LORD! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!
And when it halted, he would say: Return, O LORD, You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands!
Before discussing the importance of these sentences themselves, I want to point out that in the Torah scroll, these sentences are parenthesized by two upside down Hebrew letters of Nun. It is almost as if the scroll itself is reminding us that these sentences are an interjection to the flow of the narrative. Some suggest that this should be read as an entire separate but brief book of the Torah. If that were the case, then the book of Bemidbar would consist of three books: one before the interjection, these two sentences, and then the rest of the text of the Book of Numbers. If this were true, it would mean that the Torah contained 7 books and not 5! Interestingly, there are even quotes in the Book of Psalms and elsewhere which refer to the Torah as seven volumes.
According to the Talmud in tractate Shabbat folio 116, quoting the opinion of Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, this short (bracketed) paragraph will be removed from the Torah scrolls at some time in the future and it will be rewritten in the appropriate place. If so, then why was it not written in the proper place to begin with? According to the Talmud, it was meant to separate positive occurrences that the people experienced from negative ones, such as the ones we read about shortly after this text.
Be that as it may, I am happy to leave this discussion to authors of biblical scholarship and instead think about the meaning of these familiar liturgical concepts.
These sentences literally speak about the Holiness of Motion and Settling; there is an intrinsic holiness to moving from place to place and there is a holiness in resting in place. When we move forward, the blessing is that enemies shall be scattered and thus, we will be enveloped by a sense of security and safety. When we rest, however, we acknowledge the sense of God’s guardianship and protection, which allows us to reflect, take moments to recover, take moments to be self-aware, and most importantly, to take time for literally being in the moment. Today, I would argue that both blessings are essential.
We live in a generation that was trained to, “go, go, go” and, in fact, slowing down is often seen as a failure to move forward.
In our day and age, however, as we together figure out plans for moving forward (as individuals, a Kehillah, and a society), we must also acknowledge God’s blessings in our lives as we sit in place and ponder our future movement.
Having taught world religions, I was always impressed by the Buddhist perspective, which suggests that there is a great blessing in being within ourselves and within our space that brings us closer to oneness with God and ourselves, or, with Nirvana.
From a Jewish perspective, to be in the moment and consider our options is to offer our gratitude for God, our community, and these days, the Internet (which helps keep us connected).
The sentences of the text remind us that the Ribbono Shel Olam guards us and guides us and protects us; whether in place or on the move.
Our challenge is to accept his Holy Presence and allow it to fill our minds, bodies, hearts, and souls, to continue to make our lives a blessing to all who know us. We can and will do it together.
When the appropriate time comes, dear friends, we will gather safely, we will embrace the motion of everyday and, we will resume our more familiar lifestyles.
I look forward to singing these sentences together with you, in person back in our sanctuary and around our Holy Ark, hopefully very soon.
Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD