D’var Torah: Rabbi Elan Babchuck (Bamidbar)

Bamidbar: Embracing the Unknown

On more of my childhood nights than not, my father used to retire from the dinner table to the piano bench to play some of the blues songs from his earliest memories. Most of his repertoire consisted of well-known hits by Aretha, Ella, and BB, but there was one Bessie Smith song he truly loved to sing: Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out. The song is about losing everything you’ve ever had, and dreaming of what it might be like to recover even just one silver dollar. His favorite line, which – if I close my eyes and think back to those vivid memories of evenings by the piano – I can still hear him singing: “If I ever get my hands on a dollar again, I’m gonna hang on to it ‘til the eagle grins.”

The fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar – “in the wilderness” – describes the Israelites’ attempts to regain a sense of comfort and stability amidst the tumultuous conditions of their endless wanderings through the desert. We learn about three such efforts: (1) taking a census of the population, (2) developing systems around the traveling sanctuary called the Mishkan, and (3) better understanding the nature of the Promised Land ahead by sending 12 scouts across the border.

These three methods of seeking security and stability in the midst of the unknown are much more constructive and purposeful than the nostalgic complaints that this generation’s predecessors tended towards in the earliest years of their exodus. We could certainly conclude, then, that the takeaway from their wanderings is that we too must seek out a sense of security during tumultuous times. Like Bessie Smith gripping the silver dollar with all her strength, it’s human nature to seek comfort in the face of change.

But on the other side of the border from our wanderings is the Promised Land, the one flowing generously with milk and honey and the promise of a stable existence for this weary people. It is here that the Israelites will soon take root and build a nation. And while stability has its draws, on the flip side of this silver dollar is the danger of losing our wandering spirit – the sense of adventure, possibility, and curiosity that got us here in the first place.

In fact, our wandering story’s most important lesson is two-fold; two sides of the same coin. All of life is about finding forces of stability in the unknown wilderness, and seeking a wanderer’s spirit even in the midst of stasis. When our life’s wanderings weigh too heavily on our weary souls, we must find ways to anchor ourselves on the journey. And the moment we get too comfortable in place, it’s time for a new adventure – of the mind, body, or spirit. So whether your next step is to plant yourself right where you stand or to broaden your horizons and step forward, I wish you a nesiyah tovah – a safe, fulfilling, and enlightening journey ahead.

 

Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96, Director of Innovation, Clal; Founding Director, Glean Incubator

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