“And it came to pass on the twentieth day of the second month, in the second year, that the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle of the Testimony. And the people of Israel took their journeys out of the wilderness of Sinai.”
This week’s Torah reading, Behaalotcha, recalls the time the Israelites wandered around the Sinai desert.
I too have spent some time wandering around a desert recently. “And it came to pass on the 28th day of the fifth month, in the 2007th year, that the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle of the recreation vehicle. And the tribe of Leff took their journeys out of the wilderness of El Paso.”
OK, maybe it’s not quite as momentous. Over the long weekend I was wandering a very different desert than the Sinai—the desert around El Paso, Texas, where I was visiting with my brother Bill and his two sons, (his two daughters are off other parts of the state). While our ancestors wandered the desert on foot and with donkeys, I was wandering the desert on a motorcycle and flying over it in a small plane.
There is a Chasidic teaching that says you can learn something from anything; for example we learn from the telegraph that every word is counted and billed; from the train that because of one minute you can be late for everything (a lesson that was also repeated for me this weekend, as I missed a connecting flight by less than one minute – they were just pulling the jetway away from the door as I arrived, and I had to spend the night in Houston); from the telephone we learn that what is said here is heard there. It occurred to me that there is a lot we can learn from riding a motorcycle in the desert as well – there’s a lot of “Torah,” instruction in life, out in the desert.
The first lesson we received when we got out into the desert is that it’s a good thing to have shelter. We arrived at Hunt’s Hole, New Mexico in my brother’s RV with 3 motorcycles in the trailer behind, and just as we pulled up a thunderstorm moved by, winds were blowing fiercely, there was dust everywhere one minute, blowing in our eyes, and rain the next. We were glad we had a comfortable RV in which to take shelter.
Life is like that too – one minute everything can seem OK, the next minute all hell breaks loose, and it’s good to have a shelter. For most of us that shelter is home, and the holiday of Sukkot reminds us that the important ingredients of home – like the RV – are portable.
Once the storm blew past and we got out riding, there were large parts of the road where the wind had blown sand across the road. And I discovered that the soft parts can be much more treacherous than the hard parts. I found it much harder to ride on sand than to ride even on moderate sized rocks. Maybe life can be like that too – maybe we can get bogged down in the soft spots. It can be hard to make progress sometimes in a place where everything is too soft and easy. We often seem to make more progress spiritually, emotionally, and even physically when things are a little “hard.” The rabbis say that God tested Abraham ten times; and not only that, God tests all of us on a pretty regular basis. Maybe the testing is really for our own good.
My nephew Joey went off exploring on his own a little bit, and rode down a very steep section that was alternately rocky and sandy – and then couldn’t get back up to the road. We learn from Joey’s experience that it is entirely possible to get yourself into a situation you cannot get yourself out of. It took three of us working together as a team, my brother on the throttle, me pulling on the front wheel, Joey pushing from the back, to get the motorcycle back up. Not only do we learn that you can get yourself into situations you can’t get yourself out of, but we learn that with help we can get out of situations that we can’t get out of ourselves. There is actually a similar message found in this week’s Torah portion. Moses successfully got the Jewish people out of Egypt and into the desert. But once there, he had trouble managing them.
The people complained about the food – they didn’t like the mannah, they longed for the “fleshpots” of Egypt – a poetic translation, meaning they really missed the beef stew – and Moses didn’t know what to do. He complained to God, “I am not able to carry all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if you deal thus with me, kill me, I pray you, at once, if I have found favor in your sight; and let me not see my wretchedness.” Moses was so depressed over having to lead this unruly bunch on his own he was rendered incapable of action; he was so depressed he was suicidal. God’s reply was “get some help.” God tells Moses to gather 70 men of the elders of Israel to help him out.
Similarly, there’s a story in the Talmud about Rabbi Yochanan. Rabbi Yochanan was a gifted healer. He would visit sick friends, and after visiting and talking about their physical and spiritual condition, he would extend a hand and heal them. But when he fell ill, he couldn’t heal himself – he needed a friend to give him a hand.
After our ride we got back to the RV and were ready for some dinner. We were reminded of the value of being prepared – my brother’s well stocked RV, with a tool for every possible problem on a motorcycle, did not have a corkscrew. The Torah also teaches us a lesson about being prepared – when Jacob was preparing to meet up with his brother Esau, he didn’t know what to expect. Last time he had seen Esau, Esau wanted to kill him. So he made preparations – dividing his camp in two, sending gifts, praying.
Our missing corkscrew also taught us that if you failed to prepare properly you should be ready to improvise – by pushing the cork into the bottle we were still able to enjoy wine with our kosher hot dogs (don’t ask what kind of wine goes with kosher hot dogs…). Just as Abraham had to improvise and hastily put together a meal when three unexpected visitors showed up on his doorstep.
As we were riding in the RV on the dirt road heading back out toward the highway, we received one further lesson. We were driving along this stretch of desert road and I saw a car that looked like it was parked at a weird angle to the road – I commented out loud, “what a lousy parking job!” When we got closer we discovered it was not exactly a lousy parking job, unless you consider having a Jeep stuck on top of a big pile of sand with its wheels buried to the hubs a lousy parking job. Someone had tried to drive over a big sand berm to get to a little dirt track, and he didn’t make it. No one was in sight. Joey said “I bet we see someone walking toward the road before long,” and sure enough about a mile down the road was a guy walking by himself. He was indeed the owner of the Jeep and he was hoping someone would come by who could pull him out. He sheepishly explained that he was in the Marine Corps Reserves, and the Humvees they drive would easily have gotten over the sand. There’s one little lesson right there – a Jeep Wrangler is not a Humvee.
But the real lesson is obvious – the desert can be a dangerous place to wander off alone. He had no shelter, no supplies, and no way to dig his vehicle out by himself. We learn this from the Bible as well – generally people don’t go wandering off into the desert alone, they go in teams, as when Joshua needs intelligence on the city of Jericho, he doesn’t send anyone off across the desert alone, instead he sends a pair of spies so they can help each other. Life is like this too – we can get ourselves into dangerous territory emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. It is important to have friends who can dig you out when you get stuck in the sand.
You shouldn’t count on it, but sometimes God protects people who are foolishly innocent, and sends angels to help them. Just like the angels who showed up when Hagar was in the desert despairing for her son Ishmael, Bill, Joey, and I showed up and we were the angels that helped a stranger get his Jeep back on the road. We also learned being an angel is not an easy job. The three of us were pretty tired after a long day of riding in the RV, riding motorcycles, dealing with our own situations, when we were called on to dig this guy out. And out in the desert – which we know from our earlier lessons is a dangerous place – it was inconceivable for us to drive past and ignore a fellow human who was wandering alone.
That little episode is a reminder that we are God’s angels. It’s like the story about the guy who is caught in a flood. He’s a very pious man, gives a lot to charity, prays all the time, he’s sure he’s on God’s good side. So as the waters are rising he’s praying fervently. A boat comes along and the operator says “hop in!” Our hero says, “no, it’s OK, God will save me.” The boat speeds off. The waters continue to rise. A helicopter comes along and offers to carry him to safety. He says “no, it’s OK, I’m here praying, God will take care of me.” The flood waters continue to rise, and the man is swept away to his death. When he comes before God, he complains, “God, why did you let me drown? I’ve always been a good person, I pray to You all the time, I give charity, why didn’t You save me?” And God says “you didn’t like My boat? What was wrong with My helicopter?”
Angels are real – and every day, you have an opportunity to be an angel for someone else.
The last lesson of the day was when the stranger tried to offer us some money for helping him out. Of course we turned him down. My brother said “what’s $40 going to do for me? I’d rather have the ‘karma dollars.’” Karma dollars – there’s an interesting concept – do something nice for someone else, and maybe someone will do something nice for you. Store up universal good will in a celestial bank account. But in a way, even karma dollars are a reward; better still to just do the good deed because it’s the right thing to do and remember the teaching mitzvah g’rerah mitzvah, the reward for a mitzvah is you get to do another mitzvah.
And one further lesson from my outing to the desert – when I was in the middle of receiving all of these lessons on the back of a motorcycle, riding in a RV, pushing a Jeep out of a pile of sand, I wasn’t aware of any of these lessons as such. To learn the lessons of life we need some time for reflection as well. Maybe that’s why Moses had to spend 40 days and nights at the top of the mountain to receive the Torah – he needed the time for reflection. As Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” But I would say it’s also good to get out there and do a lot of things as well…after all, is an uninteresting life worth examining?