“When the cloud lifted, they would break camp…” (Numbers 9:21)
This week’s Torah portion, B’ha’a’lotkha, describes, again, how the children of Israel would stay put when the cloud of God lingered over their encampment, and when the cloud lifted they would break camp and resume their journeys. Wait, didn’t we read this back in March? (Indeed we did: the end of the book of Exodus contains strikingly similar language.)
This repeated motif — the cloud, the journey, the waiting — gives a sense of timeless time. (A bit like what many of us have been feeling in recent months, unmoored from regular schedules.) When the cloud is here, we’re fogged-in. Is it March, or is it June? Is it then, or is it now? When will we be able to start moving again? How long are we going to be waiting like this?
Am I talking about the Israelites on their journey, or about us in the midst of turmoil and pandemic?
The image of the cloud makes me think of “the cloud of unknowing.” (That’s the title of an anonymous work of Christian mysticism, written in the fourteenth century.) The author of the Cloud of Unknowing argues that the way to know God is to give up on trying to understand. It’s in surrender to not-knowing that we meet the Infinite.
In our moment, we need to surrender to a lot of not-knowing. We don’t know when the pandemic will be over. Whether we were exposed to the virus on that most recent trip to the grocery store. Whether the Black Lives Matter protests will result in the kind of sustained, systemic change that our nation so sorely needs. There’s so much that we don’t know.
The haftarah portion assigned to this week is also assigned to Shabbat Chanukah, probably because this week’s Torah portion speaks of the golden menorah that stood in the mishkan. It’s from the book of Zechariah. And here’s its most famous line. In Debbie Friedman’s singable translation, it’s “Not by might, and not by power, but by Spirit alone shall we all live in peace!”
Not by might, and not by power. That feels like a message for our times, both on a macro scale and on a personal one. How do we reach wholeness and peace? Not by grasping for control or imagining that we’re in charge. Not with military might in any of its forms. Not by pretending the pandemic away or pretending systemic racism away. Not with platitudes or false certainty.
The path to shalom and shleimut, wholeness and peace, is through spirit. And this week’s Torah portion offers a road map. We get there by recognizing that all of life is spiritual life — both the times of waiting and the times of action. Times when the cloud is low over the camp and we have to shelter-in-place, and times when the cloud lifts and we can be on the move.
We get to wholeness and peace both by pursuing justice with all that we are, and by surrendering to everything we can’t know about how we’re going to get there from here. It’s not an either/or: it’s a both/and. If we wait until we feel fully ready we might never act at all, and, if we imagine we know all the answers we’re guaranteed to be wrong. We need humility and chutzpah.
“Not by might and not by power, but by spirit.” The Hebrew word for “spirit” here, ruach, can also be translated as breath. I find a message in that for our current moment too. We reach wholeness not through pursuing power, but through ensuring that everyone can breathe freely. When all of God’s children can breathe, that’s wholeness and peace.
Eric Garner’s last words were “I can’t breathe.” George Floyd’s last words were “I can’t breathe.” Racism, like coronavirus, steals the breath. Just this morning we sang nishmat kol chai — “Breath of Life, the breath of all that lives praises Your name.” We name God as the Breath of Life. When a human breath is diminished, it’s as though God were diminished.
We don’t know when the cloud will lift — when justice will roll like thunder and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5:24) We don’t know when the cloud will lift — when the pandemic will end and it will be safe to return to the world again. We only know that right now, we’re in the cloud. It’s hard to see how we get there from here. But that doesn’t exempt us from trying.
Our task is to protect ourselves and each other during these pandemic times. To end racism in all its forms. To cultivate the chutzpah of believing we can make the world a better place alongside the humility of knowing that we don’t have all the answers. When the cloud lifts, we move forward. When the cloud doesn’t lift, we do what we can to build justice right here where we are.
This is the d’varling that R’ Rachel offered at CBI’s Zoom services this Shabbat (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi).