Parshat Bamidbar

Torah Reading for Week of May 17 – May 23, 2009

“Cultivating Patience as we Count the Days”

by Rabbi Anne Brener
AJRCA Professor of Ritual and Human Development

G-d spoke to Moses in the Sinai Dessert, in the Communion Tent on the first (day) of the second month in the second year of the Exodus, saying, “Take a census of the entire Israelite community. (Bamidbar 1:1-2 trans. Aryeh Kaplan)

According to most sources, G-d’s directive to Moses enjoining him to count the members of the community took place on the first of the month of Iyyar. How appropriate! Counting is what we do in Iyyar. Iyyar is the only month that lies completely in Sephrie, the time of counting the Omer. An omer is a unit of measurement, referring to the amount of barley brought to the Temple on the second day of Passover. The Bible instructs us (Lev. 23:15) to count the days between Passover and Shavu’ot. To commemorate this, we begin the traditional process of enumerating the forty-nine days between the liberation from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai in Sivan on the second night of Passover inNissan.

When we entered the month of Iyyar this year, the underside of the leaves were lit by the early morning light. This is the month the Bible calls Ziv (shining), which, in Israel and here in California, is a bright, shining, and radiant month. While the air is filled with scents of honeysuckle and sounds of birds, Spring awakens more slowly elsewhere, and even here, at the beginning of Iyyar, with an uncertain succession of very hot and very cool days, there is an anxious undertow to this month, signaling the discomfort of the unknown and of being Bamidbar-in the wilderness. Because of the uncertainties, which define life in 2009, Iyyar‘s predictable anxiety was heightened this year. In Nissan, the grace of liberation radiates from us. It lights the world. In Sivan, Sinai is its own beacon. But Iyyar is in the middle, as we parallel the anxious journey of the Israelites into the unknown.

Beginnings and endings are dramatic. Joyful or difficult, they are heralded by significant events, rituals, and clarity. The time in the middle is not the same. The time in the middle is characterized by the unknown. It is the time when the work of change takes place. It is liminal time and provokes anxiety in us, just as it did in the slaves who, when faced with the unknown of the wilderness, began to yearn for what was left behind in Egypt. This often-paralyzing disquietude is common at moments of change. Ancient cultures believed that evil demons lie in wait at these times. Frightening away these unfriendly spirits is a reason we break a glass at the moment that the bride and groom move from being separate individuals into a new entity. This notion suggests a concretization of the vulnerability felt during times of transition and enables individuals to actively confront the demons of the psyche that plague us midway when confronting loss and transition.

This time in the middle may call for hard work; there is often the anxious sense of not knowing what the outcome of our labors will be. Therefore it is in the middle that we cultivate, both our skillful efforts as well as our faith and patience. This is true whether we are awaiting the unknown of the barley harvest, like our predecessors in Temple times, or the unknown of the myriad of crises that we currently face globally.

Counting the days when things are uncertain reminds me of the directive to those in 12-Step programs: One day at a time. There are times to see the big picture and times to think small. Focusing on what we can do to get through the day can often distract us from the overwhelming global view. It can also help us build the physical, spiritual, or emotional muscles to confront the larger situation. Each day represents another notch on the belt of survival and, with it, further evidence that ultimately we will make it through.

And while we are surviving, a day at a time, may I suggest a simple meditation to combine our prayers of yearning with our recognition of the blessings that come even when we are challenged:

Sit quietly and notice your breath as it moves in and out. Affix your words of yearning to your out-breath. As you exhale, express (silently or not) what it is you want manifest for yourself and the community. As you find these words and feelings, remember that the early understanding of prayer, according to Rabbi Johannan in Midrash Rabba, included these words of entreaty: to cry out in anguish, to call for help, to lament, groan, supplicate, and confront. You might use the single word “please,” to encompass all of R. Johannan’s designations. Or you might plead for what you want by lifting your arms to heaven and “speaking out,” like Job, “in the distress of [your] soul.”

With the in-breath, let yourself be nourished. It may be simply a breath of relaxation or it may be a sense of what it is that you can still appreciate that comes your way, even in times of stress. The smell of flowers, the sound of birds, the emergence of spring, our families, all that remains and blesses us even in the midst of loss. Perhaps “thank you” will accompany this acknowledgement of the abundance that flows in your direction with each in-breath.

While this simple practice of breathing out and breathing in is unlikely to provide direct answers to the questions with which we wrestle, the movement of soul it may engender can help to break through some of the paralysis of spirit that may keep us from finding strength and patience, as we take the challenging journey toward Sinai and toward the new world in which we will be living.

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