Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 15 June 2019 / 12 Sivan 5779

Parshat Beha'alotcha

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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A Guide to Endurance

Throughout the forty-year sojourn in the wilderness, the cloud was the shepherd’s staff, by means of which G-d revealed to His flock where and when to camp, and when and in which direction they were to journey forth. The description of this guidance is presented in this week’s parsha, even before the people were condemned to forty years in the wilderness.

The text emphasizes that this guidance was unpredictable. There were times when the people had to stay in one place for a long period and there were times when they were to remain at rest for only a few days. Some of these rest periods lasted only a single night and there were times when they remained encamped for an entire year.

Ramban (Nachmanides) explains that since they never had advance indication of how long each rest period would be, whenever the cloud would give the signal to encamp they would have to make all the arrangements for prolonged stay, knowing that in a few hours they may have to pack up and travel again.

There was great purpose and training in this ad hoc travel guidance. We learned to follow G-d’s guidance with devotion and trust, no matter how incomprehensible it may seem to us. At times He instructs us to leave what we have just now begun to love, and at times He requires of us to remain steadfast in an undesirable situation. Nevertheless, we accept and fulfill with joy whatever He commands us. Beneath the shepherd’s staff of His Guidance we will always be happy, and it is our faithfulness to G-d that will bring us happiness. The forty years in the desert trained us to be prepared to put all our trust in G-d and to follow Him to unknown destinations, along mysterious paths, to wait for Him patiently or to follow him boldly — all according to the direction of His guidance.

A close look at the text reveals that the most challenging aspect of this unpredictable guidance was the waiting at the lengthy stops. Nothing is said of the duration of the journeys, but the prolonged waiting is mentioned several times in these verses. The people were aware of their destination — the Land of Israel — and had not yet been condemned to forty years in the wilderness. The waiting was particularly agonizing because they understood that every stop delayed their arrival at the destination.

So it is with our individual journeys and Israel’s journey as a nation: the test of our endurance and patience, in waiting for direction to advance is the most significant challenge. When G-d’s Hand guides us to new unchartered territory we may be scared, and called upon to exercise our trust, but the movement itself whispers promise. But the waiting — with all its concomitant inertia and despair — calls us to a different level of trust. This virtue first learned in the wilderness echoes in our personal and national consciousness, with Havakuk’s call: if he shall tarry, wait for him.

  • Sources: Commentary Bamidbar 9:16-22

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