Beha’alotecha: “When You Ascend”

The student and her rabbi, six years after the events in this story, just before ordination.

Once upon a time, thirteen years ago this month, a certain rabbi was in Jerusalem to attend the World Zionist Congress. While he was there he met one of his students for lunch. The student had been in Israel only two weeks, but she had already begun to fear that she had made a terrible mistake.  She had broken up housekeeping, sold her house, and moved to Israel to go to rabbinical school.

El Al security had questioned her for two days before they let her even get on the plane. Border security had quizzed her for another two hours upon her arrival. Two weeks later, all of her clothing – all of it! – was still lost somewhere in the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Israeli security. It had never occurred to her that her story might sound odd to security, or that sounding odd might generate so many problems.

She could not speak Hebrew very well and she felt lost nearly all the time. She had already begun to suspect that she’d spend the year near the bottom of her class, struggling with the language.

It was June in the Middle East. She was hot, dirty, and scared. But she was determined not to disappoint her rabbi, so she met him for lunch with her chin up. Because he was a wise man, he saw right through her. Because he was a very gentle man, he chatted with her about this and that. Then right before lunch was going to end, and he was going to go home to Oakland, he said something to her that would carry her through the rest of a wonderful, difficult, terrible, miraculous year of transition:

“Do not be intimidated.”

She clung to those words through the next eleven months, through her struggles with her studies, through the violence of the Second Intifada, through the beginning of the Persian Gulf War, through the deaths of friends back home, through the cancer treatments of her dearest friend, through illness of her own, through everything that year threw at her. Those words reminded her that someone whose judgment she trusted believed in her.

She heard his words again and again in the words of the Torah, every time there was a challenge to be met, or a transition to be made.

Sometimes it was direct, as in Exodus Chapter 20, when Moses told his people, “Do not be afraid.” They were trembling at the foot of the mountain, afraid of the God with whom they were making the Covenant, afraid to move forward to become the People they were destined to be.

I hear those words, less directly but still quite clearly, in the words of this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha. The Hebrews are making the final preparations before leaving Sinai and going out into the midbar, into the wilderness.

They’ve gotten comfortable in their camp while they built the Ark of the Covenant. Now the time is coming to leave that comfortable camp to move onwards into the unknown. They’re scared.

To help them, God gives Moses a ritual for the beginning and the end of every day of marching:

In the morning, when the Ark was to set out, Moses would say:

Advance, Adonai! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!

And when it halted, he would say: Return, Adonai, you who are Israel’s myriads of thousands! –Numbers 10:35-36

When we are starting a new phase of life, two things can make all the difference: first, the encouragement of a mentor, and secondly, ritual that marks the passage of time and works to contain the stress. During my long, tough year, I held on to my rabbi’s reassuring words while self-doubt battered me.

And during that year, ritual sustained me. Every week, Shabbat would come and for a few hours, put a pause to the study. I would email my kids and write in my journal. I’d pray and listen to Torah for sustenance, not for recitation or a test.

Even more homely rituals sustained me day to day: in the morning I made eggs sprinkled with za’atar on my hot plate and ate them, always the same way. And at the end of the day, I’d put on my nightgown, creep into bed, and read the bedtime Shema from my old prayer book from home.

There are things we can learn here: first, it is normal to be nervous about a big life transition. Graduations, weddings, funerals, new jobs, new cities – all are scary. Second, there are things we can do to make these transitions easier: we can accept encouragement from our mentors (as opposed to pushing them away with “I’m fine!”) and we can look for rituals to help us persevere in the task before us. Neither is a magic pill (there are no magic pills.) Rather, they will sustain us as we put one foot in front of the other, traveling a challenging road towards a distant goal.

If you are on a new road right now, I wish you a kind mentor and comforting rituals. I wish you a safe arrival at some future time and place, when the unfamiliar has become familiar, and the wilderness has given way to home.

Between Two Verses: Travel in the Book of Ruth

16 And Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.

19 So the two of them continued until they came to Bethlehem. – Ruth 1:16-19

This week we begin to read the book of Bemidbar, “In the Wilderness,” in the Torah. (It also goes by the name Numbers.) And always about the same time every year, we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. I think that this is a beautiful coincidence, because it reminds us to notice something odd in the Book of Ruth.

The little Book of Ruth is full of compelling events. Near the beginning Ruth makes a very extravagant statement of love to Naomi, her widowed mother-in-law. She then follows Naomi on foot from Amman in Moab, to Bethlehem in Judea. There a number of things happen that culminate in the birth of a child.

Ruth and Naomi’s walk from Amman to Bethlehem is about 50 miles as the crow flies across a wilderness with few roads, little water, and sharp rocks. They would have passed just north of the Dead Sea, one of the most forbidding landscapes in the world. The fact that the two women hike across it without assistance or company is impressive.

Look at the passage of Ruth that opens this post.  You will see that the walk across the wilderness is sandwiched in between two verses of scripture, verses 18 and 19. Amazing, no? The book brushes by this feat of endurance as if it were nothing.

What are we to make of this? The sages of the Talmud did something interesting with it. They give us an oral tradition that it was on that walk that Naomi instructed Ruth in the things she needed to know in order to become a Jew.

Why on the trip? Why not in Bethlehem, after they arrive? I like to think that this is because the rabbis knew that becoming a Jew as an adult is a complex process. Conversion involves becoming part of the People Israel, a process that involves loss as well as celebration. Some very dear things have to be left behind; others have to be repackaged for travel. It is one reason that conversions usually take a year or more. It is a long journey through wild and uncharted territory, different for every person who makes it.

So even if the original writer of the Book of Ruth saw fit to skip from Ammon to Bethlehem between verses 18 and 19, modern day Ruths and their guides are not going to be rushed. Some will arrive in Bethlehem, some in other destinations, but all is revealed as the journey unfolds, the journey through the midbar, the wilderness.

Self Care in the Wilderness

NaBloPoMo (Photo credit: underdutchskies)

As my life gets more chaotic with the process of moving (cleaning out one place, settling into another, with all the attendant messes involved) I notice that I’ve gotten less regular about posting here.  So I am taking action! I registered for NaBloPoMo, It’s a lot of things (click on the link to learn more) but for me, it’s a commitment to post every single day in the month of November.

This is how things often happen with me: if I want to prioritize something, there’s nothing quite like making a public commitment to it.  So there it is: let’s see if I can keep blogging while my life gets scattered all over San Leandro, CA.

“Home” is such an important place, and it can be such a slippery concept when we are under stress. I am living in two places right now, not fully in either, and the division is stressful. My office is in one place, my bed in another. Most of my clothes are in boxes, and I already know of one thing that probably got packed when it should have gone to Goodwill. Or maybe it didn’t. Nothing is sure anymore except that a lot of stuff is lost temporarily.

Our ancestors spent 40 years in the wilderness, wondering when they would get home to a place they had never seen. A whole generation had to pass before they could get to where they were going. Right now I can identify with them, even though I’m only moving a couple of miles, because I have pulled up the roots in one place and not yet put them all the way down in another. I’m living out of boxes, out of my car, and my car is a mess. When I think of it this way, though, I can’t fuss much: by the end of the month, I will be home. And in the meantime, writing this blog will be a fixed point in a moving universe, something that always helps me feel more secure.

When in your life have you been stuck in between? What did you do to take care of yourself in the meantime?