The Ever-Wandering Jew
by Miri Korbman
Every year of graduate school, my fellow cohort members and I were faced with the daunting task of applying to our next fieldwork placement, where we would receive supervision and accrue hours of clinical experience toward our psychology degrees. Having already completed the daunting task of applying and getting in to graduate school, which required many students to move, find new housing, and uproot aspects of their lives, we were ready to settle into a five-year-plan; but alas, it was not to be. The externship and internship processes were like a yearly game of Wheel of Fortune, an annual encounter with uncertainty. Each year, we applied for positions at sites that piqued our interest and offered the best training for the areas in which we wished to specialize and hoped for the best. And so, each year, my fellow students and I approached “match day” with equal parts dread and excitement; our next year of life, including where we would live and what our weekly schedules would look like, depended on which sites offered us positions, and which we would choose to accept.
I always found it tremendously terrifying to consider what this yearly experience would be like for those who did not believe in Divine Providence. For many, finding meaning in the outcome of the match process was one of the most important ways we coped with our results and with the yearly changes these fieldwork experiences brought to our life landscapes. For me, knowing and believing wholeheartedly that wherever I was placed, and on a more complex level, whichever position I chose, was already predestined and designed for me, helped me to accept any shortcomings, challenges, or doubts I had about each year and each training experience. Those who did not believe that God places us exactly where we need to be were sometimes able to make meaning of their experiences after the fact, but were not similarly able to cope with the anxiety and stress and doubt inherent in anticipating each new experience.
In this week’s Parsha, we encounter one of the most fundamental and psychologically challenging ideas in Jewish history. Our collective national journey is fraught with change, upheaval, exile, uncertainty, and displacement. Constantly in a state of diaspora since our very birth as a nation, the Jew has become synonymous with wandering. And yet, this week’s Parsha teaches us the Jewish way to manage the uncertainty wrought from a life of movement and migration (and what is life if not a constant state of movement and migration?).
The Pasuk in Behaalosecha describes the way the Jews traveled in the desert as follows, “Al pi Hashem Yachanu, v’al pi Hashem Yi’sa’u”- they camped and traveled according to God’s word (9:18). Rav Wolbe, in his Shiurei Chumash, quotes the Seforno (9:17-22), who explains that this highlights the Jews’ incredible faith in God: even though at times they camped in a beautiful oasis for a short period of time, and in a virtual wasteland for a longer period of time, they still upped and left and traveled when the time came, without complaint.
The incredible strength and beauty of a Jew is to know that every one of our travels, each of our moments in life when we feel we are wandering, when our way is not certain and our path is unpredictable, those sojourns are set forth by God for our benefit. And though we might experience some times in life as ideal and paradisiacal and others as worthy of completely blocking out for eternity, though we might wish and long with nostalgia for specific experiences, and we might question why God brings us to other experiences that feel like thorns in our sides, we recognize that we camp and travel according to God’s word. Only with this mindset can we be free from the often paralyzing anxiety of “what if’s” and “could have been’s”. As my Rebbi Rav Yossi Cohen has reminded me on countless occasions, only when we recognize that Hashem is “meichin mitzadei Gaver,” that He and He alone prepares the footsteps of man, and that every step we take, even our free-will-generated choices, is predestined and a part of God’s greater plan for us, only then can we begin to make peace with our circumstances.
In direct contrast to this idea, however, we encounter another powerfully poignant and equally characteristic moment later in this week’s Parsha. As Rabbi Lord Jonathon Sacks points out, following the Jews’ complaint about the Manna (11:4-6), Moshe reacts very drastically. He is beside himself, finding himself advocate for and leader of a nation that, despite its aforementioned incredible ability to “go with God’s flow,” suddenly cannot handle the miraculous sustenance God has provided. Overcome with frustration toward his fickle and ungrateful nation, Moshe says to Hashem, “Why have you brought this trouble on Your servant? What have I done to displease You that You put the burden of all these people on me? …. I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how You are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favor in Your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin.” (Num. 11:11-15)”.
Moshe has seemingly reached what we can perceived as a breaking point. Despite our ability to accept, and find meaning, and make meaning where it cannot easily be found, sometimes we encounter a brick wall in our faith and fortitude. Rabbi Sacks describes Moshe’s struggle as characteristic of Jewish leaders; King Dovid as well as the prophets Eliyahu and Yonah are all paradigmatic examples of leaders who reach a seeming breaking point, who despair and feel lonely and misunderstood, whose frustration reaches a point of no return, and who literally ask God to kill them and end their suffering.
This very real and human experience of despair and hopelessness juxtaposed with the Jewish peoples’ resolute faith just a handful of verses earlier highlights a powerful psychological and Judaic truth: faith is inherently imperfect, and it is the cracks in our steadfastness that make us human, can elevate us above the angels, and ultimately connect us more deeply to our Creator.
Sometimes we can access the meaning-making mentality that allows us to make peace with the stops on our journeys, with the places God has taken us, and those to which we wished to go but from which we were barred. At other times, however, this mindset may prove quite difficult to access. At these times, we must validate our own experiences; sometimes, we are just in pain. Sometimes, we are broken, forlorn, helpless, and hurting. Sometimes, like Moshe, we rage at God, “Why did You do this to me?!” Though our lives are beautiful, perfectly imperfect, predetermined tapestries, we are also human, and this is by design. Part of making meaning of our journey requires breaking down from to time and saying, Hashem I don’t understand why You brought me to this place, to this relationship, to this challenge, or why You steered me away from this other experience or encounter. It is in this darkness, in this hopelessness and uncertainty, that we connect to God, for it is in questioning Him that we recognize how fully our wanderings are in His control.
This week, consider a stop on your journey that was either extremely welcome, or entirely unexpected. Stop to reflect on the feelings, positive, negative, or neutral, that the different milestones and rest stops en route generated in you. Forgive and validate yourself for the times you raged at God in question, in anger, in sadness, in hopelessness and uncertainty, and count yourself among the greatest leaders of Israel in doing so. And, if you are lucky enough to be able to access the meaning-making, Al Pi Hashem Yachanu V’Al Pi Hashem Yi’sa’u mindset, reflect with gratitude on your ability to reframe your comings and goings as the eternal struggle of the ever-wandering Jew.