There was an event going on down the block from my house recently.
On the sidewalk was a laughing toddler trying to chase after her granddad without falling down. She was laughing because her granddad was doing his best to clown her – spinning a ball on his finger, calling her name in a sing-song voice, doing a silly dance as he led her down the walkway. He picked a flower and stuck it in his mouth as he continued to spin the ball. In response he got a new gurgle of laughter and a couple more teetering steps.
The lengths we’ll go to make a baby laugh! To coax a smile from our beloved! To find moments of awe, wonder, and delight in our world!
One place I look for wonder each week is in trying to understand what the week’s ancient Torah portion has to teach us about what is going on in our world right now. Perhaps I do this because it is usually so much easier and accessible to find wonder here than by climbing a peak hoping to glimpse a brilliant brief sunrise, or getting down to the beach to meditate in rhythm to the crashing waves, or whatever. It seems there is always something in the Torah if I just look for it…
This is the last Shabbat before the summer solstice (June 21), the longest daylight of the year, the official start of summer. From here on, the days will grow shorter by a few minutes until December and the start of winter. I anticipated that tonight will be the latest candle lighting time of any Friday night all year….but I learned something I did not know: Due to the earth’s tilt, here in New England our earliest sunrise will be tomorrow morning on Shabbat and our latest sunset will be after the solstice, making next Friday the latest candle lighting hour even though the amount of daylight will already have started to diminish slightly.
What does our Torah portion this week, Beha’alotcha, have to say about this? Well…
While we enjoy this maximum of full light during this season, we might nevertheless be confused by the details of how it all works practically, and sense the tinge of foreboding: the days will grow shorter from here, the light will very soon already start to diminish toward the next dark and cold winter.
This is a theme – THE theme – of this week’s Torah portion. Aaron is commanded to light the menorahs (the lamps) in the sanctuary; silver trumpets are made to announce when the whole group of Israelites are supposed to pack up and move along the way to the Promised Land and when to rest from journeying; We are told of the song Moses sang as the Ark would set out, dispersing our enemies and inspiring the People to move on.
And yet practically there is confusion and frustration amongst the people. We sense a hint of foreboding.
Along with all that positive energy, the people complain about the food, about Moses’ authority, about Moses’ wife…Moses asks his father-in-law Yitro to accompany the people on their way to the unknown destination and Yitro replies that he prefers to go to his own native land, to a definite place on the map rather than some vague, undetermined “promised land”.
It seems that so much of all we have, all the blessings we can count, all the positive light that shines into our lives has an accompanying worry, a foreboding, a negative or a dark side. We reach the pinnacle and know the only way forward is to go down. The most light this shabbat or next Shabbat will be a little less the week after.
The Hebrew word “yirah” is often translated as either “awe” or “fear”. How do we translate so much of all that surrounds us, into “awe”? And how at the very same time do we translate it into “fear”?
The great Israeli poet, Yehudah Amichai, has a poem that connects to nearly every Torah portion. I think this poem captures exactly what Beha’alotcha is telling us this week…enjoy!
A Man In His Life from In the Hour of Grace, 1996
Translated by Ted Hughes
A man doesn’t have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose.
Was wrong about that.
A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
takes years and years to do.
A man doesn’t have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.
And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.
He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there’s time for everything.
Rabbi Michael Schwartz