“With G-d as our Guide”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Beha’alotecha, we are told that the travels of the ancient Israelites in the wilderness were orchestrated by heavenly signs from the Al-mighty.

The Torah, in Numbers 9:15-16, states that during the day the Tabernacle was covered by a Divine cloud, and each night a heavenly fire would hover over the Tabernacle until morning. We learn further that whenever the cloud lifted from atop the tent, the children of Israel would journey, and wherever the cloud would rest, there the children of Israel would encamp. Summing up these Divine travel “arrangements,” the Torah concludes, Numbers 9:18: “Ahl pee Hashem yis’oo B’nay Yisrael, v’ahl pee Hashem ya’chah’noo,” According to the word of G-d the children of Israel would journey, and according to the word of G-d they would encamp.

Based on this same verse, the Shelah HaKadosh (R’ Yeshayah Hurwitz, 1560-1630, famed rabbinic leader, scholar and kabbalist of Poland, Frankfurt, Prague, and Jerusalem) concluded that during every step of one’s life a Jew is required to mention G-d’s name, no matter how insignificant that step may seem. Thus, if one departs on a journey, one should say: “I am, with G-d’s help, traveling to my destination, where I hope, if G-d so wills it, to stay for a few days.” Upon arrival at one’s destination, one should say: “Thank G-d, I have arrived here where I hope to remain until, with His help, I will return home.”

Rabbi Naftali Trop (1871-1930, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Chofetz Chayim’s Yeshiva in Radin) deduced from this same verse that wherever the Jewish people may be, they are always closely connected to G-d. The Jewish people, says Rabbi Trop, are like an infant cuddled in its mother’s arms, who goes wherever its mother goes. Her place is his. They are, in effect, inseparably linked. It was in this manner that the Jewish people in the wilderness were borne by G-d. They traveled and encamped only by G-d’s word. And, when the Divine Presence moved, so did the people.

The prophet Jeremiah declares G-d’s loving praises of the Jewish people for their intense loyalty (Jeremiah 2:2): “Za’char’tee lach chessed n’oo’rai’ich, ah’hav’aht k’loo’lo’ta’yich, lech’taych ah’cha’rai ba’mid’bar b’eretz lo z’roo’ah.” I remember the affection of your youth, your love as a bride, how you went after Me in the wilderness in a land that was not sown. From the description in parashat Beha’alotecha we see that the Jews had complete confidence in G-d, following His signals and traveling with Him into the wilderness to an unknown destination. Through heat and cold, rain and drought, without question or complaint, the ancient Israelites followed G-d.

Our Sages state (Sotah, 34a): “Ma’asei avot see’man l’vanim,” the deeds of the father are a signpost for the children. There is much for contemporary Israel and for the Jewish people to learn from the ancient Israelites and their loyalty to G-d during their travels in the wilderness. For instance: How should a contemporary Jew choose a dwelling place? Should it be determined by the local shopping amenities and conveniences, or by the safety and beauty of a neighborhood? Simply stated, a Jew should select a dwelling by its “proximity” to G-d. Surely the optimum dwelling place for a Jew is to live as close to G-d as possible, which is, of course, the Holy Land. Jews who are unable to move to Israel, should choose their residence by setting for themselves rigorous Jewish criteria, seeking out excellent schools for their children and inspirational houses of worship for themselves. Surely, not by the square footage of a dining room or the size of the backyard!

Successful Jewish living requires being a part of a community–a strong, vibrant and inspiring community. Especially today, with the distancing that has occurred between generations, children no longer live near grandparents, who in the past would have played an active and involved role in raising the grandchildren. As a result, we are all far more dependent upon the goodness and kindness of our neighbors to care for our children and to protect our homes.

More than fifty years ago the Commission on Jewish Law of the Conservative movement of Judaism issued its famous responsa allowing Conservative Jews to drive to synagogue on Shabbat. Recently, the outgoing chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, declared publicly that this decision was a terrible mistake. The decision to allow Jews to drive to synagogue on Saturday, in effect, encouraged Jews to move further away from the synagogue, breaking the back of the supportive Jewish community that is essential for strong Jewish identity and practice.

Z’mirot, Sabbath table hymns, are very difficult to sing alone around a Sabbath table. Raising Jewish children without other Jewish children who hail from similarly committed Jewish homes is virtually impossible. Jewish life needs Jewish community, Jewish families need Jewish communities, and Jewish posterity requires Jewish communities.

This is precisely the message of the Torah in Numbers 9:18: “Ahl pee Hashem yis’oo B’nay Yisrael, v’ahl pee Hashem ya’chah’noo,” According to the word of G-d they encamped, and according to the word of G-d they journeyed.

May you be blessed.