the summer of 2016, presenting a lecture on the issues of ritual at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Dr. Elana Stein Hain commented, “You have no idea what is going through a person’s head while they are saying the Shema.” Dr. Stein Hain explained that the mysterious, ambiguous quality of ritual practice is something that we need to “live in” and “live with,” preserving and exploring further in our world. Ritual is not intended to serve as an avenue to fundamentalism, but as a means toward exploring the beautiful depth, the meaning, the majesty, and even the murkiness of Judaism and life itself.
But the key is to be with that ambiguity, with that uncertainty. By nature, if it’s uncomfortable, or unfamiliar, we seek to do something else with it or avoid it entirely. But what Dr. Stein Hain suggests is that ritual (among other things in our lives) means markedly different things to different people at different times. And rather than wash over that, the discomfort is something we need to sit with. Don’t seek to explain it, form it, determine it, design it, build it, fix it, shape it, or shift it. Just. Let. It. Be. And go from there.
But! But! But! The reader wants to interject. You expect me to…and your Dr. Stein Hain person also expects me to feel uncomfortable? Okay, what’s on the next page of The Jewish Standard? Precisely.
But there’s no escaping the wilderness. Like our ancestors, we have to allow ourselves to be bemidbar, in the desert, in the wilderness. It is fitting that Bemidbar is not only the Hebrew name given to the book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah that we begin reading this Shabbat, but also the name of this week’s parashah in which repeated censuses of the Israelites are taken and listed, presenting an image and headcount of their various encampments around the Tent of Meeting, as they prepare to conquer the Promised Land.
Yet we pause to consider that there were 603,550 men, aged twenty and higher, and that number doesn’t even include women and children. We are a people who joke that for every two people there are three opinions. Would we even consider that this moment of encampment means the same thing to 603,550 people at precisely the same time? It doesn’t. There is danger in fundamentalist thinking, in believing that there is only one approach. But once we peel away from “everything having to be a certain way” life becomes ambiguous and uncomfortable. Or perhaps, life becomes real and more possibilities begin to open, more opportunities present themselves.
It is fascinating when we consider the calendar and the placement of Bemidbar amidst the larger picture of the Jewish year. Bemidbar is always read before Shavuot, and in most years, it is read on the Shabbat immediately preceding Shavuot. Sometimes Naso precedes Shavuot as it did in 2011 and 2014, but until 2035, Bemidbar, “being in the wilderness” immediately precedes Shavuot.
What might we glean from this connection between Bemidbar and Shavuot, especially as Shavuot, which happens “in the wilderness” of Sinai, is our celebration of receiving the Torah? The medieval Midrash contains a powerful text on how Torah was revealed individually, even though “all of us were standing at Sinai.” Exodus Rabbah 5:9 offers, “Come and see how the voice went forth to all Israel, to each and every one in keeping with his particular capacity — to the elderly in keeping with their capacity, to the little ones in keeping with their capacity, and to the women in keeping with their capacity.”
Following the citation of this text, Rabbi Yose bar Hanina makes a connection to manna, claiming how different it tasted from person to person. If manna could be changed into many kinds, then the strength of God’s voice can vary, how much the more so, “according to the capacity of the individual.” Midrash takes the concept further, expressing that God’s voice mutated into seven voices, and the seven voices into seventy languages, so that all the nations might hear it (Exodus Rabbah 5:9).
Different voices. Different sounds. Different perspectives. So ambiguous, uncertain, and the joy of ours is to celebrate it, wade through, and unearth deep meaning by which to live by, literally, busying ourselves in the words of Torah, like the blessing we recite at the start of each day. We have to be given Torah bemidbar Sinai, because life is a journey of learning that unfolds in the open wilderness.
So what does the revelation of Torah mean to us? It’s an uncomfortable question, perhaps. There are so many answers. So how do we let the question be? And how can we allow the question, and the journey, to mean different things to different people? Embrace your wilderness … and let others embrace theirs.