Rabbi Karen Citrin
July 18, 2014
The existentialist poet, Henry David Thoreau, wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
And farther west in our country, the great environmentalist and preserver of the natural world, John Muir, wrote, “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.”
If ever there was a people who truly understands the wilderness experience, it would be us, the Jews. Our ancestors wandered for forty years from Egypt, through the Sinai wilderness, until they reached the Promised Land of Israel. If you have ever spent time in the wilderness, or prairie, or other natural setting, you know how the rugged terrain and beauty of our natural world can evoke feelings of calm and quiet, sometimes doubt and fear and even panic, and at times awe and wonder. The wilderness almost always evokes gratitude, whether it is the realization of how fortunate we are to be alive, to breathe deeply and freely, or simply to return home to a hot shower and soft bed.
Our ancestors experienced all these sensations and sentiments. This week’s Torah portion, Matot, which is often combined with the following portion, Mas’ei, concludes the book of Numbers, and Moses’ recounting of the various stages of his people’s journey through the wilderness. As we look back on the previous books of Torah and on the earlier stages of their wanderings, we have learned that the journey was filled with some of the most extreme anxiety and complaining ever heard, and some of the greatest and joyous miracles ever witnessed.
Going back to the Exodus, the children of Israel had barely finished crossing the Red Sea, when they started to complain. I quote from Torah, “In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Eternal in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.” (Exodus 16: 2-3) How quickly the people forgot that they were being guided by a new leader who had just freed them from bondage together with God’s mighty hand and that they had just sang Mi Chamocha, dancing and praising their freedom. How quickly they forgot the bitter taste of slavery, as they yearned for the bread of Egypt.
The people vacillated and struggled between grumbling and praise throughout the journey. There was not enough water. Moses was gone too long on the mountaintop. Ten of the spies who scouted the land of Israel saw gigantic people and a land that devours its settlers. And at other times the people saw Moses’ face shining with the light of God. They brought gifts, each according to his or her own heart, to build the Tabernacle, the portable ark in the wilderness. And two of the spies who scouted the land of Israel came back saying they had seen a land of milk and honey.
What was God’s reaction to all the muttering? That the children of Israel would roam the wilderness for forty years, so that the generation who had left Egypt would die, so that a new generation would enter the Promised Land.
At this point it should come as no surprise that as the Israelites reached the last stages of their journey described in our Torah portion this Shabbat, more conflict ensued. The tribes of Israel were so close to their goal of entering the Promised Land, the land of Israel, they could practically see their destination from where they stood. Most could hardly wait to take possession of the land.
Yet, the members of the tribes of Reuben and Gad couldn’t help noticing that the land they were already standing on, on the banks of the Jordan, looked pretty good – green and lush and watered. It occurred to them that this land might meet their material needs perfectly, without having to fight for a new land. The Torah records that “The children of Reuben and Gad owned cattle in very great numbers.” (Numbers 32:1) Rather than going forward and affirming their loyalty to God and their family of Israel, they put forth one last attempt to hold back. Grazing their flocks with the least amount of effort became their supreme goal, even if it meant separating from the community.
Moses was instantly incensed. These two tribes were putting their own interests above those of the community as a whole. They would be seen as abandoning the nation at the very time they were needed most. As Moses put it to the tribes, and as we just read from the scroll, “Should your fellow Israelites go to war while you stay here? Why do you discourage the Israelites from crossing over into the land the Lord has given them?” (Numbers 32: 6-7)
Modern Torah scholar and commentator, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, offers an interesting perspective on how Moses handles their request. (I thank Carole Levy for bringing this commentary to my attention). “One of the hardest tasks of a leader, he writes – from prime ministers to parents – is conflict resolution. Yet it is also the most vital.” (“Covenant & Conversation” 5774) Sacks describes how Moses became a role model in conflict resolution. Moses was blunt and honest. He guided the Reubenites and the Gadites to recognize the view of the people as a whole and together they reached a compromise. “Let us make provisions for our cattle and our families, they say, and the men will then accompany the other tribes across the Jordan. They will fight alongside them. They will even go ahead of them. They will not return to their cattle and families until all the battles have been fought, the land has been conquered, and the other tribes have received their inheritance.”
The Reubenites and Gadites achieved what they wanted but only after the interests of the nation as a whole were secured. This was, according to Sacks, a model compromise, a sign of hope after the many destructive conflicts that took place throughout the wilderness.
So what does the wilderness experience have to do with being here at Temple today? The wilderness can be a powerful paradigm for any community that is journeying through significant change. These past weeks I have been reflecting on our first year in Tulsa. Rabbi Micah and I arrived here as your new Co-Rabbis a little over a year ago.
Let’s be honest. This past year has been a little like the wilderness. I know some of you have felt doubt, apprehension, confusion. And others have felt excitement, awe at the newness, and wonder. Some of you have offered praise. And some of you have grumbled. This is all normal in the wilderness. We are in the wilderness because we are transitioning to new leadership, new styles, and new ideas.
Rabbi Micah and I know we look different on the bima and we lead services differently than what you were used to. Just as you are trying to get used to us, we are trying to get used to a new sanctuary, a new bima, different culture and customs.
We were used to different melodies. It may come as a surprise to you that we had never led a Torah service on a Friday night before. Like most Reform congregations, we were used to reading Torah on Shabbat morning. It will probably not come as a surprise to you that we were not used to arranging so many honors in the service, and planning ahead to have different people join us on the bima. The company up here tonight was nice. We have heard you, and we understand that we are all trying to navigate our way through this wilderness of change.
It is sometimes easier to want to go back and harder to push forward. I want to be clear: I am NOT saying that Temple Israel was like Egypt before, or that Rabbi Micah and I are like Moses leading you to the Promised Land. That comparison would not be accurate. And here at Temple, we have certainly not experienced anything like the ten plagues or the splitting of the Red Sea. It is not an analogy; it is rather a metaphor for the anticipation, hardship and excitement that accompanies any kind of change and journey.
There is a lot about our ancient wilderness experience which can guide us today. There is a wonderful article written by William Bridges called, “Getting Them Through The Wilderness: A Leader’s Guide to Transition.” Bridges speaks about all kinds of changes we experience in life – personal, communal, and organizational. He teaches about three psychological phases of transition: an ending – when people let go of their old reality and identity, a much longer middle or neutral zone, and the third phase of beginning over again, with new energy, sense of purpose, outlook and image. Bridges compares the neutral zone to the wilderness and describes it as, “a time and a state of being in which old behaviors and attitudes die out, and people go dormant for awhile as they prepare to move out in a new direction. It is a dangerous time for organization, but it is also a time when innovations and experiments have an especially good chance of succeeding.”
He recognizes that people experience this middle zone differently. He also thinks that Moses got it right. He said, “Moses knew what we too often today forget: that people have to take a long journey through this second phase of transition before they can be transformed into the people who are ready for the Promised Land…. The psychological insights of the Exodus are very accurate. Every time we make a change of any depth or extent, we find ourselves in a confusing no-man’s land between the old way and the new for some time. That time in the wilderness can begin before we actually leave the old way, for as soon as we decide to leave we find that the old way starts to lose its hold on us. And it certainly can last long after we arrive at our destination, for there can be months and even years in the new situation before we really ‘feel at home’ there.”
Now, I’m not saying that it is going to be forty years of wilderness here at Temple Israel. I certainly hope not! But it will take time. It will take time to get to know one another. It will take time to build trust and partnership with our lay leaders.
It has only been a year. Bridges talks about the importance of going slowly, remembering and honoring the past, looking ahead and marching forward, and celebrating successes along the way. I wish I could tell you how long it will take or exactly what it will look like, but I can’t. I do think we will feel it as we journey together. And I do believe we will get there.
I can tell you that Rabbi Micah and I see a community rooted in deep history and memory, people who are bright, warm, and kind, and ground that is fertile for planting seeds of new programs, initiatives, and outreach to our members. We see an open field of Torah to learn, prayers to touch our spirits, and volunteer opportunities that will change the world a little at a time.
I can tell you that we want to navigate the wilderness with you. We want you to be a part of it. We want to dream about the Promised Land of Temple’s future together. We want to share the experiences of our lives with each other – the times of doubt and pain and loss, and the time of joy, wonder, and amazement. And when you are confused, please come talk to us. Ask us questions. And we will ask, too. We want to hear from you and talk with about what it feels like to be part of this amazing transformative wilderness experience.
In the wide open space of the wilderness, one can see clearly for miles. There is so much to be grateful for. In the beautiful wilderness that is before us, let us say thank you for our lives, for our good fortunate, and for the blessing of our Temple Israel Family.
We learned tonight from Torah about the importance of the community’s interests and mission. We learn from Torah how the wilderness was a challenging place, a time of doubt and conflict. We learn from Torah how the wilderness was a magical place, a time for creative problem-solving, experimentation, and revitalization. I hope that here at Temple Israel, we will embrace the wilderness frame of mind to its fullest.
“In God’s wilderness lies the hope of the world.” Shabbat Shalom.
 William Bridges & Associates. Resources for Organizations in Transition. Thank you to our congregational consult, Rabbi David Wolfman, for sharing this article.