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Behaalotecha, Shepherds and Wandering

The greatest of our biblical heroes begin their careers as simple shepherds. Why? It is because shepherding demonstrates the necessary credentials to transform a group of distinct individuals into a community. Abraham, Moses and David gently guide their animals throughout the wilderness, even taking note of a stray sheep or goat. Even God is praised with the words: “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me to still waters…” (Psalm 23:1)

And yet the people often refuse to be guided. The Book of Numbers is a record of these refusals, and rebellions. Moses struggles to lead the Jewish people forward; they over and over again wish to go backward. “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all!’” (Numbers 11:4)

They would rather be penned in as slaves than wandering the wilderness free. How quickly they forget their sufferings and pains! They cling to fanciful imaginations of yesterday. This pull of a mythic past is so strong that they long for what must have been a sliver of fish and wilted leeks. They prefer the certainty of yesterday’s morsel rather than the bounty of God’s manna. Moses grows angry. He struggles to urge them forward. They only want to stay put. They wish to remain in the past.

The Book Numbers elucidates this tension. On the one hand we read of Moses urging them toward the promise and the dream, although the unfamiliar and unknown, and on the other the people clinging to their memories of the past. Memories appear more certain. How quickly yesterday’s troubles become forgotten. How quickly the imagination refashions the past. A meager ration of cucumbers and melons become a meal.

The hand of the shepherd guides them forward. They rebel. “If only we had meat to eat!”

Then again perhaps the true meaning of our heroes being shepherds is that a shepherd is first and foremost a wanderer. I admit that this may very well be my singular theme, but perhaps the spiritual message of the Torah is that God wants us to remain forever wanderers. Moses points to the future. The people look to the past. God affirms the present. Keep wandering. Keep moving, even if in circles. That of course is the Torah’s primary story line. “And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out on their journey accordingly…” (Numbers 9:17) The Torah is primarily a record of forty years of wandering.

God apparently does not want us to become attached to any one place or location. We remain in each encampment but a few days. The cloud of glory lifts. The people move on. In the Torah the Promised Land remains but a dream.

The dream is held at a distance. We continue to affirm the present.

Thus the defining book of the Torah is Numbers. In fact its name in Hebrew is “Bamidbar—in the wilderness.” The wilderness belongs to no nation. It belongs to no one—except God. It is as if to say the Torah is found both nowhere and anywhere.

And it is there that we must remain—forever wandering, forever moving. Our holiest of books is defined by the midbar, the wilderness. It is defined by a scrappy landscape in which animals roam free although gently guided by the hand of their shepherd.

It is also the place in which our people wander—but free.

The Torah is discovered nowhere and anywhere.  It is found instead in wandering.