Parashat Bamidbar 5779

Rabbi Monique Mayer – 31 May 2019

When I was two years old, my mother told me not to bother my father who, in grieving the loss of my beloved great grandmother, was “talking to God” behind a closed door. I barged in, wanting to see what God looked like. I suppose it’s what I’ve spent my whole life doing, even into my rabbinate. It’s not that I seek an actual image of God; but I do look for opportunities to encounter God in places, in experiences, and in relationships. And I do, in the quiet moments, talk to God.

It may surprise you to hear that I talk to God. We know that many orthodox Jews refer to “Hashem” and feel a deep connection to God’s role in their life, but in my time as a rabbi, I have found a reluctance on the part of many progressive Jews to think of God as something, someone, with whom we are in relationship. Indeed, of the two aspects of God, immanence and transcendence — God who is more personal and permeates everything versus God who is remote and beyond human experience — I hear more challenges to a personal God than to a God who is remote, whether or not that remote God is a God one believes in! When I was young I took comfort in knowing there was a God “up there” that took care of things. But as a I grow older, the personal God — the shekhinah or indwelling presence of God — has become more prominent in my spiritual life. I talk to God when I’m feeling low. I talk to God when I have a big decision to make. I express gratitude to God when something good happens in my life. And, yes, I rail against God when my plans go awry, if only so I don’t have to inflict my frustration on another human being! So do I get a response? (you may ask). Well, when I don’t take time to relax and clear my head, if there is a response, it’s drowned out by the background noise of daily distractions. My ability to attune to any sort of Divine message is affected by my environment and mental awareness. I need to be in the right frame of mind and the right place to be open to receiving. Rabbi Shoham in Itturei Torah teaches us that the Torah was given in the wilderness when we are most open and vulnerable.

    To teach you that if you want to merit receiving Torah, you must make yourself like the wilderness, to have a great measure of humility and to feel no reason for pride, to know that you are bare and lacking all, like the wilderness.

The Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, also means mouth, as an in organ of speech (see Song of Songs 4:3). In order to hear a message, to receive the teaching from a metaphorical mouth, we need to find ourselves in the wilderness. For me it is a walk in the woods or along the seashore. For you it may be somewhere else. It is there in the wilderness when our mouths cease and we open ourselves to the silence and possibility that we are able to hear our inner voice, the Divine call of direction, conscience, and strength.

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