Balancing God’s Will and Our Own

Beha'alotekha By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jun 6, 2014 / 5774

Parashat Beha’alotekha gives us insight into the Israelite trek through the wilderness. Far from undertaking a journey guided by their own instincts and initiative, the Israelites were bound to rely on divine guidance. Numbers 9:17 teaches, “And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp.” What can be learned from the Israelite mode of transportation?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains,

The cloud was the Shepherd’s crook by means of which God, the Shepherd of Israel, announced the Divine Will to the People God was leading, where and when they could encamp, where and when to break the camp. And as is described here, the will and the intention of this direction was absolutely unpredictable. Sometimes a long rest, sometimes just a few days. Sometimes only a night or a day and a night, or two days, a day, a year and as Nahmanides remarks, as there was nothing to indicate the duration of the stay, the people must often have received the sign to stop, have made all the arrangements for the encampment and then perhaps just after a few hours to pack up again, break camp and follow the cloud onwards again. Such was the school of wandering through the wilderness, which was to teach us for all time to follow God devoutly and trustfully, to have complete confidence in God, however little God’s Guidance may seem comprehensible to us. We are to always to do what God directs, always to feel cheerful under the crook of God’s Guidance, always to be ready to defer the plan of our life to God . . . That said, it is not so much the strain of the lengthy wanderings as the patient endurance of the lengthy stops which seems to be stressed as the real tasks of the tests . . . This is more understandable when one thinks of the inhospitality of the desert, and remembers that the people knew quite well that the wilderness was not the end of their wanderings, but that their goal lay beyond in journeying to the Promised Land. (Commentary on Numbers, 149–50)

Hirsch’s explanation compels us to reflect on God’s role in our own lives, as well as the place of the divine within the nation. While Hirsch loyally describes the reality of the biblical wanderings of the Israelites (for which they are to be praised), the lesson he teases out of this episode should spark a good dose of spiritual wrestling. While there are times in our lives in which we may feel God intimately guiding our respective journeys, there are other moments in which we as individual Jews must take the initiative and not merely rely on the “cloud” or divine “crook” to guide us. The midrashic portrait of Nahshon jumping into the threatening waters of the Reed Sea when the rest of his brethren hesitated and the bold move of David Ben-Gurion to declare the establishment of the State of Israel are but two examples of moments when we could not wait for divine intervention. As Ecclesiastes teaches, “for everything there is a time” (Eccles. 3:1)—a time for submission to God’s plan as well as a time for initiative and respectful resistance. The challenge for each of us is striking the sacred balance between these two approaches in our lives, a vital goal as we enter Shavu’ot this week.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.