The word midbar means wilderness. Now sometimes when our people’s story gets told, it’s reported that we wandered in the desert for 40 years. And then everyone pictures the flat, dry, yellow sand of a cartoon desert. A thirsty bunch in colorful robes plodding along the smooth terrain. But that’s not a midbar. No, our people wandered the wilderness for 40 years. And there is nothing flat or smooth about a wilderness. A wilderness is craggy and bumpy and it has mountains shooting up into the sky. It has false summits and deep holes, it is brambly and brushy and beastly. It is …wild.
Our people left Mitzrayim, Ancient Egypt, heading for somewhere out there, and entered into a wilderness, a midbar. Forty years of our defining narrative, three out of five books of our Torah, are out there—a people in nomadic life, learning to cope with and learn from and live in an unfolding journey of obstacles and victories and movement.
Union Temple family, we are on such a journey. We have been on this journey for some time. Long before I had the honor of knowing you, you journeyed through wild terrain under the beautiful leadership of Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman and Rabbi Stanley A. Dreyfus, alav hashalom. This is a community who knows what the midbar feels like. And now, as many of you know, our dire financial situation has led us to the end of one chapter of Union Temple’s story.
We find ourselves now at the cusp of determining what our next chapter will be. Within the next month, we will vote on whether we will enter into a historic merger with our sister congregation, Congregation Beth Elohim. We are in a time of discernment now about our future. And it’s not easy. And some days are hard and brambly and wild. And some days are joyful and forward-looking. And all of it is sacred journey through a midbar.
But we’re in unchartered territory. Most of us haven’t traveled this way before. So we do what our people have always done, we look back into our tradition to find the wisdom it has for us in our most pivotal moments.
We come from a people who take difficult journeys in stages throughout their life and narrative. Perhaps we’ll find that our people’s epic voyage through the midbar has wisdom to offer us, to shore us up for the weeks and months ahead.
So let’s set the stage: In Torah, we are leaving a place called Mitzrayim, which means the narrow and tight places, where options and resources are meager. While our current story is not one of slavery or oppression, God forbid, we do know what it’s like to live in a tight spot with insufficient resources and limited options. And it is from this place that our sacred narrative unfolds.
While here, it is Moses who takes the lead, we know that we are a community of leaders, so we’ll need to democratize our tradition a bit as we mine it for its meaning.
Let’s start with what Moses did first. After God comes to Moses and says it’s time to go, Moses. It’s time to lead the people out, and the Exodus clock starts ticking, we read.
וְאָֽסַפְתָּ֞ אֶת־זִקְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל,—Moses is instructed to go and gather up the elders. To engage with them. To tell them what’s happening and the difficult truths about what they are facing and what may happen next. Before any movement, any decision happens, Moses goes and gathers up the people.
Yes. This resonates deeply for us. How could a community journey together without its people? Without hearing and understanding their dreams and their hopes and their fears. We can imagine that when Moses showed up, the people asked questions, had doubts, had hopes. Had wisdom to offer and things to try.
And oh, Union Temple, our gatherings have been as rich and diverse as that. We have gathered to listen to our people, too. To our elders and really, to our everyone. Over the past year and still happening right now, we have come together to see one another, tell hard truths, and deepen our connections to each other, our trust, our love, and our resolve as we consider our future. There’s so much truth in this Torah for us.
Next, our tradition offers us this: God said to Moses: Tell the people I will take them אֶל־אֶ֤רֶץ טוֹבָה֙ וּרְחָבָ֔ה אֶל־אֶ֛רֶץ זָבַ֥ת חָלָ֖ב וּדְבָ֑שׁ, to a good and spacious land, a land that is flowing with milk and honey. A vision. A vision for where to aim their ship. Our tradition teaches us that it is not enough to leave somewhere. You’ve also got to have a picture of where you are going. Especially if and when the leaving itself is hard. A vision, a purpose that responds to the dreams of what the people want and need and can imagine being part of. Something that makes the hard worth it
In the wisdom of this community, we have dreamt a vision together as well—side by side with our potential partners in all of this, our friends at CBE. It’s not perfect, it looks a little different than other visions we’ve had, and it is, by nature, dynamic, but perhaps we have begun to see a place off in the distance that is worthy of traversing a midbar to get to. A place of inspiring learning and spiritual pursuits, powerful justice, heart opening culture, and deep and real community with those we know and with a sweet and warm and kind new family, too. Is this a metaphor for the Promised Land? No. There’s just one of those. But if we collectively determine that this is what we want – maybe our eye on that prize gives us the strength, courage, and hope to press on.
So how did our people tend to their history even as they looked ahead?
When they left Mitzrayim, the Torah says that the people carried with them only what was essential. Do you know what that included? וַיִּקַּ֥ח מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־עַצְמ֥וֹת יוֹסֵ֖ף עִמּ֑וֹ. They carried with them atzmot Yosef, the bones of our ancestor Joseph, who had died hundreds of years earlier. In those bones was their origin story. All they had been and learned and accomplished along the way. Those would not be lost just because they were in a new place that had a new name.
This is good wisdom for us, too. What are Joseph’s bones for us? Our origin stories. Our history, our accomplishments, the impact Union Temple has had throughout the generations of its lifespan.
I recently spoke with one of our most incredible elders. And she said to me: I just don’t want to be forgotten. Now, she is no bones, she is life itself. But we know what she means. We are the legacy of so many who have come before us. It is on us to honor them, to tell their stories, their impact on this community, and on this world. And to take with us all of those we have lost and buried, those we have eulogized and loved. Their stories, which are Union Temple’s stories, need oxygen and attention and companionship as they walk with us. They are essential.
Our text next comes to remind us how to tend to and make space for our own emotional experience of this liminal moment. Some days were rough, we learn.
Even knowing they could no longer stay where they were, sometimes the Israelites got so sad or angry or sarcastic. And the people said to Moses:
הַֽמִבְּלִ֤י אֵין־קְבָרִים֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם לְקַחְתָּ֖נוּ לָמ֣וּת בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר
“Was it for want of graves in Mitzrayim that you brought us to die in the wilderness?”
We might wonder: Why didn’t they leave that part out of the Torah? It’s so unseemly, no? No. It’s so real. It’s so human and compassionate to listen to our hearts and to let it all get said. The people were scared and sad and they sometimes cried.
And so we also honor this wisdom. We bring with us all that we feel. Torah teaches us in this raw moment for our ancestors that it is also holy and human to make room for every feeling that arises in our beating hearts, to honor our nostalgia, our hurt, even as we envision our future.
Late in our journey, our story gives us a particularly important lens as we discern what’s ahead.
We read a story about the daughters of a man named Zelophechad. They were trying to sort out in their heads: okay, so what will the next chapter look like? And they realized during the journey that in the current plan, their unique family situation had been overlooked!
And they raised their voice and they said – wait wait wait. You’re going to divvy up the land to all the menfolk, but we are a family full of women. We’re not married and – avinu met bamidbar – our father died in the wilderness.
תְּנָה־לָּ֣נוּ אֲחֻזָּ֔ה בְּת֖וֹךְ אֲחֵ֥י אָבִֽינוּ׃
Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”
And I want to note two gifts that the daughters of Zelophechad give us.
The first is grief. In calling out in this public moment that their father has died, they remind us that we will need to take the time to grieve an ending. However our communal vote goes, and even though the beginning we are facing is exciting, full of possibility, or even if it is just what you and your family want—communal grief and ritual allow us to honor endings and begin beginnings with resilience.
And second, they remind us to keep paying attention to each family’s unique situation. That someone might be thinking—but—what if I don’t belong there?! And so we acknowledge our collective responsibility that if we do determine we will merge, we will need to make sure that each person and family will be seen and cared for along the way as their unique selves.
Finally, there is a moment in our text when the people need to decide to cross the sea or not. It’s a HUGE and defining moment in Torah. The people have left Mitzrayim, but there is a sea in front of them that they don’t know how to cross.
Moses turns his eyes to the Heavens and instructs the people
Hush up! And watch as God does battle for you today! But God answers Moses:
מַה־תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְיִסָּֽעוּ׃
Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward!
They realize that the decision is theirs. That there is power in choosing their own future in this moment. That there is risk in the unknown, but also that there is something out there that they are hungry for, that they want. Miriam reminds them that across the way is not just the hard of leaving, but also the song and the rhythm and the joy of a new destination.
They take a deep breath, grab each other’s hands, and step forward together. Into a lifetime of becoming, evolving, remembering, honoring, and living.
In many ways, this is just the moment we are in, at the shore of this sea, and the decision is now ours. And there is power in taking each other’s hands and choosing our future.
We don’t know exactly what’s ahead. But I do know this. Where we are coming from and where we are going is part of an incredibly sacred journey. There’s a blessing that we say at Havdalah—which is the ritual we have to end the holy time of Shabbat and begin regular weekday time. Usually, we say: hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol …blessed is God who distinguishes between holy time and mundane time. But when Shabbat ends as another holiday begins or keeps on going, we say instead: hamavdil bein kodesh l’kodesh. Blessed is God who distinguishes between this holy time and that holy time.
The chapter of our journey that is ending, is kodesh. It is holy. It is you and all of us. It is the generations of children named in our Shabbat services, the weddings on our bima, the funerals at which we wept. The b’nei mitzah students accepting the mantle of Jewish adulthood. It is our decades of dancing and our learning, our Purims and our prayer. It is sitting in our Sukkah and tikkuning our olam and caring for each other when we were sick. It is years of hard meetings and triumphant solutions. It is the thousands of voices of our religious school and preschool children rising up in our halls. Union Temple’s story from its beginning up until now is z’man kodesh—a legacy, written into the history books of Judaism and of Brooklyn and of the Reform Movement.
And the chapter ahead of us is also kodesh, holy time, as we figure out how to sanctify it. A time of weddings and b’nei mitzvah yet to come, babies who will be named, justice we will yet enact, children to educate, and holidays to celebrate, and elected officials to agitate. And above all, community and relationships to build and nurture and grow.
As our ancestors once did, we are standing on one shore, and wondering what lies ahead. We’re a little roughed up by the trip, maybe aching from the long way we’ve come, but we look down and find that, this whole time, we never let go of one another’s hands.
We have big decisions ahead of us. Bein kodesh l’kodesh, may we gaze backward with a deep respect and pride for where we have been, and may we gaze forward with the hope and determination we need to sanctify the path that we choose. May we be patient and compassionate with one another along the way.
And may this new year be sweeter, gentler, and a holy chapter for our Union Temple family.