“In the Wilderness”

This past week I was in New York City at a conference called “The First 100 Days: All Rabbis in Transition.”  This was a conference for rabbis, like myself, who are departing a congregation, and beginning at a new one.  Each of us were in a period of transition, as a rabbi of two congregations at once, packing up our houses and lives and moving to a brand new community.  Most of us have just about a month left to find closure, figure out logistics of moving, and start a new life.  There’s a lot of stress, it turns out, in a move like this.  There are difficult roads ahead, not just in saying goodbye, but integrating into a new synagogue community, which Edwin Friedman calls “an emotional field.”  Friedman tells us that a synagogue is a living organism, and that each one of its members is its own “bundle of emotions,” all interacting and affecting one another. This is why goodbyes and hellos are so challenging for clergy.  A new rabbi coming in affects what Friedman calls the “homeostasis,” of a congregation; the new community where I am going will have its homeostasis affected by my arrival; just as this community’s homeostasis will be affected by a new rabbi coming in.  And within the context of transition, there is also incredible meaning in that either by planning or coincidence, we are entering the book of Numbers, which we call “BaMidbar,” the wilderness.

How appropriate that this Shabbat, as we stare down the last 30 days together, entering a period of uncertainty and instability, Jews around the world will read and study the book of our Torah which tells of stories of our ancestors wandering in no-mans-land, the middle of nowhere, the Midbar.   We should not enter the Midbar lightly, as the Torah gives us plenty of reasons to fear it.  It is in the Midbar that Joseph’s brothers threw him into a pit, and left him for dead; it is in the Midbar where Azazel resides, the divine being to whom we send a goat with all our sins; it is where men and women are swallowed up by the earth, attacked by snakes, denied water and resources.  It is not a friendly place.  We are being deliberate in translating Midbar as “wilderness,” as that is a more accurate translation than the colloquial translation of “desert.”  Even the sand on our synagogue floor is said to have a small connection to the wilderness in which the Israelites wandered from Egypt to Canaan; and though the translation isn’t quite right, as we don’t want to label the wilderness with a particular geographic feature, it is understandable that when we think of the wilderness, the image of a desert comes to mind.  This is because the image of a desert evokes a desolate, scary place with no end in sight.

Of course, today, thanks to GPS technology, it is not often that we, in the 21st century, fear being lost in a desert or in the woods, though perhaps every so often we make a wrong turn.  No, today the wilderness we fear is internalized.  We fear being lost on our journey through life. Amazingly, the word Midbar does not necessarily limit itself to a geographical location; rather it is ambiguous to be a metaphorical, emotional, or spiritual wilderness, a state of being.   So many things can throw us from our comfort zones and drop us in the middle of a metaphorical wilderness where we feel alone, helpless, and lost.  A period of transition, a period of uncertainty, a set of unexpected events that change the course of your career or life. These important nodal moments can create difficult questions to ask of ourselves and others, and paths to unknown destinations.  We ask why, we ask what lies ahead, we ask “what if,” but the Midbar gives us no answers.

But this week, our teachers, the rabbis’ rabbis, taught us that the Midbar isn’t necessarily so negative, it’s not so scary.  In fact, there is a part of the wilderness which William-Bridges, an author on many books on transition, calls “the neutral zone.”  The “neutral zone,” we were taught, is the place after the feelings of loss and fear start to subside and can be an exciting place if approached correctly.  This zone is a place in which creativity thrives; it is a place of experimentation, new directions.  Both the synagogue in which I am moving to, and this synagogue will be in the neutral zone in about a month, and there will be new things everywhere.  New programs, new approaches to worship, new routines, new relationships, new power-dynamics, and new conversations about the future of the community as a whole.  Both communities must push through the feelings of anxiety and fear, and start realizing the opportunities that await.  Members of both communities have the chance to feel valued, to show excitement, to change expectations, to honor the past while embracing the unknown; a chance to, in a positive way, break out of the homeostasis of the community and culture.  This is not a precipice that is in front of us, it is not a desert, but simply a road in which we cannot see the destination.

There is an old Chassidic tale that came to my mind when I was sitting in New York, thinking about what lay ahead.  Rabbi Reb Chaim told of a story wherein a woman became lost in a dense forest.  She wandered this way and that in the hope of stumbling on a way out, but she only got more lost as the hours went by.  Then she chanced upon another person walking in the woods.  Hoping that he might know the way out, she said, “Can you tell me which path leads out of the forest?”

“I am sorry, but I cannot,” said the man, “I am quite lost myself”

“You have wandered in one part of the woods,” the woman said, “while I have been lost in another.  Together we may not know the way out, but we know quite a few paths that lead nowhere.  Let us share what we know of the paths that fail, and then together we may find the one that succeeds”.

“What is true for these lost wanderers,” Reb Chaim said, “is true of us as well.  We may not know the way out, but let us share with each other the ways that have only led us back in”.

You may feel that you are lost in a dense forest, but it is my hope that you, and the community in which I will enter soon, remember that you are not wandering alone.  All of us will be in the Midbar together, coming from different paths, and as our story teaches, it is only when we work together that we can find ourselves out on the other side.  This is the sacred partnership that rabbis and congregations dream of, working as partners, knowing each of our roles, teaching and learning from one another, each of us with authoritative roles, while none of us as authoritarians.  By the time the conference this week ended, I was, admittedly overwhelmed, but not in a negative way; there is just so much to share, so much to teach, so much work to do, and as we all enter the Midbar this week, may we know the comfort of those wandering beside us.

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