Descent for the Sake of Ascent: The Last Year in the Wilderness

wildernessAs we go up, we descend.

In B’midbar, the Book of Numbers, we travel through wilderness to the Promised Land. We make our first aliyah, our first “going up.” But during a last year of troubles, we spiral downward first. Why must we sorrow and grieve so? Why do we transgress and fail to trust?

As that last year begins, Miriam dies, leaving behind a people thirsty for water, for life. Aaron dies shortly thereafter, his death witnessed by his younger brother. There is yet more plague, threats of a curse from a foreign king, one betrayal after another. The Israelites are seduced; a final pestilence wipes out the last of the generation that had fled Egypt.

In B’midbar we descend, step by step, and no one is left untouched, uncompromised. Zealotry becomes permissible, even sanctioned. Transgression before the sanctuary results in death sentence. Pinchas kills two lovers at once, with one spear thrust through their intertwined bodies.

Exhausted and worn, Moses finds his humility, his generosity only to lose it again. He understands that he will never enter the Promised Land and ordains Joshua with grace and power. He responds to the requests of the daughters of Zelophohad to inherit for their father with compassion and understanding.

But then, God commands his servant: He is to avenge the Israelites on the Midianites: “Then,” YHVH says, “you will be gathered to your kin” (Num. 31:2). YHVH does not stipulate conditions; Moses does. When the men come back from the war, he is enraged. They have spared the women, the very ones who seduced the Israelites. He orders them to slay every male child, every woman who is sexually mature. Only virgins will be spared. They will be booty.

It must be total war: A war of annihilation.

The last chapters of B’midbar give us rage and aggression after initial chapters of complaint and rebellion. In the last year we spend in the wilderness we descend, we fall. We seem to have lost our way just as we are supposed to arrive.

How shall we go forward? We, too, know what it is to fall. We know the grief of loss and the pain of our own mistakes. We know all too well when we have missed the mark, failed to rise and nourish ourselves, our families, our communities, the broken world.

We are now at the lowest, most painful time in the liturgical year, just days away from Tisha B’Av, when our temples were destroyed and our people so often brutally treated, expelled from England and Spain, liquidated from the Warsaw Ghetto. Now, as we travel through the memory of loss, our year, too, is ending. The month of Elul, the time for reflection, is near. Yom Kippur, our hope for renewal, is before us. Can we free ourselves from the accumulated grit and dirt of our mistakes and transgressions and ascend? Reach our promised lands?

In the penultimate chapter of B’midbar, Moses is given instructions concerning assurance of refuge. Who does this text address? Those who have killed unintentionally. Those who have taken life itself without ever meaning to do harm.

Every one of us, every year, takes from this earth, takes from each other, takes from life itself – and not because we intend harm, but because, simply, we have missed the mark. Small, thoughtless action – the impatience we show a child or a spouse or a friend, the need to have it our way, the careless consumption of material things that neither enrich nor bless us – we long to live in the light of God and we find ourselves in so many shades of darkness, of removal, of descent from the divine.

But we Jews, we read to discover. We read to recover. In Massei, at the close of B’midbar, we read that there must be forty-two cities for the Levites and six additional, special cities that can promise refuge to those who have taken life unintentionally. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad. Six words. “V’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha…” – a Torah of forty-two words. We discover this: In the Shema, in listening to the Holy One, in the V’ahavta, in the loving of the Ruach ha’Olam, we will ascend. We will redeem our mistakes, our many acts of life-taking. We will rise to acts of renewal. We will find refuge in the city of the Shema.

We descend in order to ascend: yeridah tzorech aliyah. May we leave our wilderness spaces and deserted places, and go up, forward into our Promised Lands.

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