Behaalotecha: The Journey of Grass

desert-islandThen Moses said to Hobab, son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are journeying to the place about which the L‑rd said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Go with us, and we will be good to you.”

Numbers 10:29

Note that Moses said that the Israelites would journey to Israel, whereas Jethro was invited to go to Israel. The difference between “going” and “journeying” is that going can mean to travel physically but remain emotionally unwilling. The body moves along, but the heart remains in place. Journeying means to go physically and mentally—the entire person journeys to the destination.

It is possible to go without journeying. One can board a plane and travel with reluctance. Your heart and spirit are with your family, but you have no choice, because circumstances force you to make the trip.

As we read these lines, we can reflect on our own lives. Those of us privileged to be born into Judaism are in possession of a gem we don’t fully value. It is incumbent on us to learn from righteous proselytes (The same applies to those holy souls who do teshuvah midstream in life and adapt to a whole new lifestyle) how to value the privilege of Judaism.

-Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
“Live Every Moment”
Commentary on Torah Portion Behaalotecha

Last week I was in the middle of a journey, at least I hope it was a journey. To tell the truth, I always think of myself as in the middle of a journey, but last week at this time, as you read my Friday missive, I was also far from home. Specifically, I was attending the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) Shavuot conference at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin.

Although I had made my airline reservations months in advance and on some level was looking forward to attending the conference, part of me wanted to cancel everything and just stay at home. It’s more comfortable at home, more predictable…it’s safer. I suppose I was “going” to the conference but not “journeying,” to borrow Rabbi Gurkow’s metaphor. But then again, I was forgetting something.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives, And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you…

Genesis 12:1

That’s how the verse is translated in the NASB version of the Bible. Now let’s look at how the Aish Ask the Rabbi writer translates the same verse and then read his brief commentary.

God appears to Abraham and commands him: “Go to yourself” (“Lech Lecha”) – away from your country, your relatives, and your father’s house.” God is telling Abraham that in order to become truly great, he must “cut the umbilical cord,” and embark on a journey of growth and self-discovery – away from the familiar routine.

In commanding Abraham to go away from his country, his family, everything he ever knew, God is also commanding him to “go to himself.” We can understand this as going to the Land of Promise, to Canaan, to the Land that would one day be known as Israel. This was the core of everything God intended Abraham to be as the Father of Judaism and the spiritual father of all of those who turn to the God of Abraham through faith in Messiah.

Go to yourself.

In some sense, that’s what I discovered (or rediscovered) in returning to Hudson last week. I expressed some misgivings about going to the conference right before my trip and it turns out, on that first Tuesday night as I sat in services and listening to the teachers, I was right to feel that way. Instead of everything feeling comfortable and familiar, I felt like a literal “stranger in a strange land.”

boaz-michael-beth-immanuelEven as Boaz Michael was welcoming all of the attendees that first night, encouraging those who were completely unfamiliar with synagogue worship to engage in the process on whatever level they felt they could, it was as if I was standing on the outside looking in through a dirty window. I realized that I was at the intersection, or some might say, the point of collision, between the Shavuot conference and my Tent of David experience.

Seven months ago or so, I started attending church again. In spite of the discomfort I felt on multiple levels, I eventually settled into a sort of “rhythm” in my church attendance, in my fellowship with other Christians, in my weekly conversations with Pastor Randy, and everything has gradually become “normal.”

But in sitting in the pew at Beth Immanuel on the first night of the conference, I was struck by how familiar and unfamiliar everything was. Even as I moved through the subsequent days of the conference and gradually re-acquainted myself with Jewish worship, eventually drawing a sense of comfort and even enjoyment in the Jewish expression of encountering God, I realized what it was really like to stand between two worlds. In some ways, the typical Sunday worship service at church couldn’t hold a candle to the Jewish prayer and Torah services, the depth they generated in me, and the complex pattern that davening in a synagogue weaves in my personal fabric.

But while I realized that the synagogue wasn’t my world, it reminded me that the church really isn’t my world either. I started wondering about the consequences of Calvinism and perhaps I was one of those consequences. What happens when a person who God doesn’t choose for salvation ends up on the House of God anyway? What happens when he wants to love an encounter with God but feels completely foreign to the attempt?

Was this God’s way of telling me that I didn’t belong? Were others called to “journey” but I was merely “going” along for the ride?

Go to yourself? But exactly where does “myself” reside?

I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

Deuteronomy 30:18-20

Tree of LifeIf Calvin is right, then how dare God tell the Children of Israel as a corporate body to “choose life” knowing that He had deliberately programmed some of them to not choose life? Talk about setting people up for destruction. Was that what God did to me? Did he program me for destruction and then allow me to find myself among the people of God? If that was so, then my sitting in Beth Immanuel listening to the prayers, listening to the Torah being read, listening to the Spirit of God speaking to the hearts of everyone around me except me was a cruel and horrible jest.

Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear…

Isaiah 59:1

No, the arm of the Lord is not too short that it cannot save, if God actually chooses to save. Was God choosing to save me or condemn me as I sat among those at Beth Immanuel on the first night of the conference?

Either Calvin was having a hardy laugh from Heaven (or from the grave…whatever) or I was being kicked in the gut by bilateral, bicultural ecclesiology.

I realized looking around me at Beth Immanuel, how vitally important it is to create and preserve a fully religious, cultural, and halachic Jewish experience within the context of Jewish disciples of Messiah. This must feel like “home” to the Messianic Jews (and not a few Gentiles) in attendance, both those who had traveled far to be there, and those who attend every week.

But as I cruised into the synagogue at a pretty good clip emotionally, I suddenly hit a major cultural wall and dropped from warp speed down to sublight down to a full, complete, and abrupt stop. It was like being dropped from an airplane down, down into the ocean. Splash! I was underwater and I couldn’t breathe. Which way was up? Would I drown?

I eventually found the surface and oriented myself. Eventually things got better. While I didn’t always understand everything that was happening around me, it was the people who made me feel at home.

“One who romanticizes over Judaism and loses focus of the kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a carpenter who is infatuated with the hammer, rather than the house it was meant to build.”

Troy Mitchell

Troy was kind enough to let me know the actual words of his midrash, which Boaz was quoting from memory at the conference.

It was the teachings at the conference that helped me focus on what’s truly important, which is building the Kingdom of God. I’ve already blogged on what that means and will continue to do so from different perspectives and through the eyes of different teachers as I keep writing into next week. When we proceed forward under our own effort or feel as if we’re being dragged along for the sake of social or moral obligation, we are merely “going.” To actually, willingly follow the Spirit on the path of God, it is then we are on a “journey.”

The goal of humankind is to reach beyond the state of Adam and Eve in the Garden—to a state where any sense of ego is meaningless. A place called Eden, which is beyond the Garden, the place of Essential Being from where all delights flow . . .

“And a river went out from Eden to water the Garden.”

And now you know the secret of why such a tree was created.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Over every single blade of grass, there is a heavenly force that whispers to it and commands, “Grow!”

-Bereishis Rabbah 10:7

Hands of the GardenerAccording to Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, midrash says that human beings must struggle against two forces as we strive for spiritual growth, inertia, which affects all things, and the yetzer hara, which is unique to people.

While Christianity sees our “sin nature” wholly as an impediment to be done away with, Jewish thought considers both inertia and the yetzer hara as motivators, urging us on, pushing us to achieve more, to climb higher, to plumb ever greater spiritual depths, to strive toward the sun, the light, the air…to overcome who we are in order to become who we were meant to be.

That’s what I found at the intersection, or even the terrific, horrific collision of this year’s Shavuot conference and my Tent of David experience in the church. Rabbi Twerski’s commentary puts the finishing touches on my journey like this:

If a lowly blade of grass has both a tendency towards inertia and a spiritual “mentor” which demands that it fulfill itself, we human beings, with two adversaries, certainly have even more powerful forces urging us to achieve our full potential. We should be aware of what can hamper our achievement and make the effort to overcome it.

Today I shall…

…bear in mind that there are numerous obstacles to spiritual growth, and that I must try to triumph over them.

May it be so by the will of God.

Good Shabbos.

124 days.


6 thoughts on “Behaalotecha: The Journey of Grass”

  1. Good words, James. You are not alone.

    Everyone at the conference was as gracious as can be. The love was tangible, the teaching was enriching. I had an internal feeling of being an observer (not fully a participant) of something I long for, but cannot have, by virtue of my social context (birth, marriage). I ask myself what is the right path? Should I just quit longing? Or to press forward and attempt to journey toward a full participation in an ekklesia that is increasingly defining its boundaries to exclude people like me? How do I fulfill a longing in my heart for an expression to Hashem in this earthly existence? There are many others like us – something seems off and I’m not sure what it is.

    Blessings on your head.

  2. If I may correct an impression I may have created here. There was nothing in the conference that left me feeling “outside.” The Shavuot conference is an amazing time of learning and dwelling in the warmth of the FFOZ and BI community. It could not have been a better example of a “bilateral ekklesia” coming together. Sorry for linking my internal processing to a post on the conference in a way that miscommunicated.

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