In this week’s Torah portion, B’ha’a’lot’kha, we read again about the cloud of divine presence that hovered over the mishkan, the portable sanctuary our spiritual ancestors built in the wilderness. The divine presence took the appearance of a cloud by day and a fire by night. When the cloud settled, we made camp; when it lifted, we packed up and resumed our journeying.
“Whether it was two days or a month or a year — however long the cloud lingered over the mishkan —- the Israelites remained encamped and did not set out; only when it lifted did they break camp.”
The commentator known as the Sforno — Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, born in Italy in 1475 — notes that the Torah repeats this point five times. Because nothing is extraneous in Torah, these repetitions must be there to draw our attention to something incredibly important.
So why is Torah highlighting this point so strongly? Maybe to teach us something about discernment and journeying.
The journey undertaken by our ancient ancestors in the wilderness isn’t just a historical story about something that happened to them back then. (Or maybe an a-historical story.) It’s also about our lives in the here and now. And in our lives there are times when we need to pack up and move, and there are times when we need to pause and discern what should come next.
The paradigmatic journey taken by our ancient ancestors was from slavery to freedom to covenant. From constriction to liberation to connection with something greater than ourselves. We too take that journey, not once but time and again.
Unlike our ancient ancestors, we don’t have the visual cue of a giant pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to tell us when it’s time to sit with what is, and when it’s time to leap into the unknown. That’s discernment work we have to do on our own — maybe with a trusted friend, or a rabbi, or a spiritual director. (Or all three.)
The new Jews we’re celebrating this morning know something about sitting with what is, and they also know something about leaping into the unknown. Each of them spent a long time discerning who they are and what they need and whether the desire for change was motivated in the right ways. Each of them spent time beginning to learn about Judaism before making it their spiritual home. (I say “beginning to learn” because none of us is ever finished learning about the richness and depth of our tradition — including me.)
And each of them decided, at a certain point, that it was time to take the plunge. It was time to stop waiting and reflecting. It was time to embrace the next step on their journey.
In other words: they enacted precisely the spiritual journey Torah describes our ancient ancestors taking. And the same can be true for all of us.
This week’s Torah portion invites us to cultivate the quality of emunah, trust. Trust that if we’re in a period of waiting and discernment, we’ll be able to tell when it’s time to get moving and in what direction to move when the time comes. Trust that if we’re in a period of leaping, the new chapter to which we are leaping will be one of sweetness and growth. Trust that we’re headed toward a place of promise, of abundance and sweetness — and that we can always course-correct as needed.
And I think it also invites us to cultivate a quality of inner listening. Because we don’t have the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, we need to listen for the subtle movements of heart and soul.
This can be one of the gifts of Shabbat: time to discern how we are and where we are and where we need to be. It can be one of the gifts of prayer: in Hebrew, l’hitpallel, literally “to discern oneself.” It can be one of the gifts of spiritual practice writ large: learning how to listen for when it’s time to sit still and when it’s time to get going, learning how to listen for who and where God is calling us to be.
This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI on Shabbat B’ha’alot’kha (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.) Image: Steve Silbert’s Visual Torah sketchnote from parashat Pekudei, an earlier moment in Torah that introduces us to the pillar of cloud and fire.