These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Together in Our Wanderings

Posted on May 26, 2013 by Sean Ference

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My dvar Torah from the Galil Shabbaton:

Sean FerenceIn our parsha, we are given a vivid description of the Israelite’s journey through the wilderness, and what this vast undertaking entailed. Their journey would begin when the divine cloud would lift off the Mishkan; only then would the Israelite camp begin to move. How long Israel stayed at each encampment was dictated by how long the cloud remained above them, for as the Torah says: whether it was two days or a year, however long the cloud lingered over the tabernacle, the Israelites remained encamped and did not set out; only when it lifted did they break camp (Bamidbar 9:22).

We come to see, that the Mishkan is the glue that binds all of the subject matter of our parsha together. Throughout the book of Bamidbar, we see the people of Israel lavish care on the Mishkan. This movable building, a traveling sanctuary for God’s presence, is the foundation of the camp’s structure, and the focal point of its cares. Due to the mere presence of the Mishkan in the camp, God’s presence abides in the camp.

It is poignant to remark, that the momentous events recorded in the other books of the Torah all take place at fixed geographic locations: Breishit in Canaan, Shemot in Egypt, Vayikra at Sinai, and Devarim on the plains of Moav. It is only Sefer Bamidbar that has no geographic anchor. Rather, Sefer Bamidbar is an account of Israel’s journey towards the Promised Land. The impermanent Mishkan, a mirror for Israel’s transitory state during this time, is therefore at the center of the story.

How can we relate the story of this parsha into our life? What can this parsha come to teach us as many of us transition from our lives at Pardes into jobs and studies outside of Israel? We now live in an unprecedented era in time, where our people, the people of Israel, have returned to their ancestral homeland, and have created for themselves an autonomous state. If we were to be asked to add our story to the five holy books of our ancestors, surely our story would be one of a fixed location, a story of the land of Israel. And yet, while we have finally reached a time where the majority of Jews in the world live in Israel, for many of us here today, the land of Israel may not be our final resting place, the place where we raise our families and grow old.

If the Mishkan is what held together our people in their wanderings through the wilderness, what is it that has held our people together through our own wanderings, throughout our own exile? It is the teachings of the Torah, and our beautiful shared tradition that surrounds it that has held together and continues to hold together our people in our wanderings through the thousands of years we have been in exile from our land. This beautiful book that has had such a huge impact in teaching our people and peoples the world over how to live a true and moral life, has been the focal point for our people in the same way that the Mishkan once was for our ancestors. Similar to when the Mishkan was in their midst, where ever there has been a place with a love for Torah and for its teachings, there you would be able to find God’s Schehinah, his divine presence, dwelling among us. For as we learn in the third chapter of Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Halafta Ben Dosa tells us that when ten people sit together and study Torah, the Divine Presence rests among them. After citing a verse in the Tanach to support this teaching, he then comes to teach us that this same rule applies to gatherings of five people, three people, and even one person studying Torah on his own! What power one person could have, that through the very act of their studying Torah they bring God’s presence into the world.

And yet, speaking from my own experience, and what I imagine to be the experience of many here, accessing our Tradition and the teachings of the Torah is not a given, and can in fact be very difficult. Teachings written in a foreign language, cryptic passages, and a whole field of general Jewish knowledge assumed to be common knowledge among the students… The skills needed to be a true scholar of our people are not given at birth but need to be taught! And while ideally we would have gained these skills as a young child, for many of us, and for a huge number of Jews in the world today, the skills needed to access these texts are not being learnt.

What, then, is our take away from our year here at Pardes? What have we gained that is of import? The magic of Pardes is that it has given us the skills and knowledge to access the Torah, and the many other texts that encompass our beautiful Tradition. We can leave this year no longer being strangers to our own religion, no longer needing to rely on a second or third hand account of its teachings. We have been given the keys to access its wisdom, and have been shown the way to the door; all that is left for us in our lives is to open it. We have been empowered to begin a lifelong journey. And I sincerely hope that this is merely the beginning of our Jewish journey, and not the end. For if nothing else, my time spent studying at Pardes has exposed me to how great the task is, and that an entire world of Jewish knowledge awaits those who would pursue it. And yet, as we have been told all year, for many of us leaving Israel next year, after our time at Pardes we will be among the most knowledgeable Jews in our community.

This leaves us with a tremendous responsibility. For if one person learning Torah can bring God’s presence into the world, how much more so will this be if each of us as individuals can bring others to learn with us? How will we create the open and welcoming Jewish communities that our people will be able to focus around, and that will encourage non-observant or non-identifying Jews to become a part of? How will we help to teach and show our generation and the generations to come how Judaism can enrich their lives? I hope that we will leave this year with confidence in our Jewish identities, and a real and true knowledge that our Jewish studies this year at Pardes have impacted our live in an incredibly beneficial way. I leave you all with the blessing, that for the rest of our lives, we may all continue to merit the amazing opportunity to learn Torah, and that we may all be lights of Torah that continue to bring God’s presence into our world. Shabbat Shalom!