This Shabbat we begin a new book of Torah, the book of Numbers. In Hebrew, as many of you know, it is BaMidbar, in the Wilderness. The portion looks at taking a counting of people for possible military action and thus, a census of people encamped in the Wilderness. There are many commentaries on the nation of counting and census taking, etc. The tradition is that this portion is read close to the festival of Shavuot, which occurs this year next week. (erev is May 30) This festival celebrates the first harvest and was given the historical linkage to the giving of Torah and the acceptance of Torah. The classic Midrash asks why this Torah was given in the Midbar (Wilderness) and the response is that the Wilderness belongs to no-one, telling us that Torah is accessible to all.
There are a myriad of interpretations on this, as you can imagine.
For us, as we get a little older and often reflect on where we are in life and where was have come from and where we wish to be, this image can be another reminder of what it means to develop a relationship with Torah. I do not speak just to the literal Torah, but the symbolic Torah. Why are so many Boomers embracing Torah study and pursuing Jewish knowledge? Why not when we were younger? Perhaps it reflects the issue of time, in that, for many elders, we may have more time to devote to this study. When we were younger, we were tasked to do this (prep for Bar./Bat Mitzvah) or too involved in career and raising family. Yet, I think this Torah portion also reflects something else, something deeper than just the reality that we have more time.
As we have written about before, this stage of life allows us to confront our own search for a sense of meaning and purpose in our own life. For may Boomers and elders, the path to looking at the richness of the texts opens new pathways to understanding our own journey. Indeed, the CENTRAL image for us is the Wilderness. If we understand that we all are on a spiritual journey, then this return to Torah makes sense. But it is not a return to the Torah of our youth. It is a return and even search for a Torah that speaks to the issues of our life now. And, as many commentaries show us from this portion, returning to this idea of Torah is always available to us. The key is when in our life do we become ready to re-engage this encounter. The blessing from Torah study includes the word “la’asok”, which is often translated as to engage. We return as adults to seeking answers and insights from Torah hoping to engage Torah, to enter into a dialogue with the texts. It is as if we come to Torah and tradition and say let’s sit down and have a conversation about the important things in my life. This give and take with text, so much a part of our history, is open to us all, whenever we are ready to engage it.
Rabbi Richard F Address