By Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky
As we begin yet another graduation season, heads of school, guest speakers and members of the clergy will be offering words of advice to the graduates as they move on to the next stage in life. It seems that this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotecha, is tailor-made for this kind of charge.
The Torah’s description of the travels of the Jewish people (Numbers 9:15-23) seems excessively verbose. Essentially, the Jewish people traveled when the Clouds of Glory lifted, and encamped when and where they settled. Yet the Torah spends a full eight verses delineating all the possible permutations of this arrangement: Sometimes the clouds stayed for a long time, sometimes briefly, sometimes overnight. Sometimes, they stayed for a day and a night, sometimes for a month and sometimes even several years. The Torah’s description is always followed by the same refrain — that their encampment and their travels were all dictated by God. Simply saying that their sojourns were of varying durations would have sufficed; why recount all this seemingly excessive detail?
The Italian Torah commentator Rabbi Ovadia Seforno (1475-1550) explained that this detailed description is actually a description of the emotional state of the Israelites. Sometimes they encamped somewhere to which they grew accustomed, and maybe even liked — and just as they came to this realization, the clouds departed. Sometimes, they were encamped in a place they loathed and could not wait to leave, but had to remain for seemingly interminable stays, because the clouds stayed. It was enormously destabilizing to sojourn somewhere and be unable to set their affairs in order before the clouds lifted and they had to travel again. It is for this reason that the Torah stresses, with each travel permutation, that their travels were dictated by God — to show that they followed His commands regardless of what their instincts or desires told them to do.
This interpretation is not just a description of the travels of the Jewish people — it is a metaphor for life. We sometimes find ourselves in stages in life that we wish would end, that we wish we could fast-forward through — but they just don’t. Ask anyone enduring an illness, a bitter divorce, the loss of a loved one or fertility challenges, and they will tell you how true this is. Sometimes, we find ourselves in a stage in life that we have looked forward to or that we love, and it ends too quickly; ask the empty nesters who are ready to enjoy life, and then succumb to an illness — or the newlyweds who are getting used to and enjoying married life and, before they know it, the children come along and blessedly upend the lives their parents were building. Sometimes, we are afraid to move on in life, because of the unknown changes that the next stage brings — ask anyone who is stereotypically commitment-phobic in romantic relationships. And sometimes, in between stages in life, there is no time to arrange one’s affairs, take stock and adjust to the transition. This is not just true on a personal level; it is true on a national level, as well. Jewish history is a repetitive pattern — without exception — of Jews settling in a location, growing comfortable and then having to leave when the ground shifts under their feet in ways that are shocking and destabilizing, yet should not be. Wherever we live, wherever we are in life, the Torah is teaching us a profound message. If we want to get to the physical, emotional or spiritual Promised Land, we must surrender our time to God — the ultimate expression of faith.
Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky is the rabbi of Congregation Shaare Tefilla and a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.