Wednesday, March 28, 2018

We Were Nomads

 From the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:

A Message From Our President

Dr. Lance Strate

We Were Nomads

Passover is coming, and with it comes our annual celebration of the exodus from Egypt. We tend to think of it as a liberation from slavery, the first step on a journey to the promised land, with a very significant stopover at Mount Sinai. But we also tend to discount the journey itself, the forty years of wandering in the desert. We may think of it as a punishment for losing faith. Or we may even joke about it, saying that we got lost in the desert because the men refused to ask for directions.

We tend to think of wandering in negative terms, often as "wandering aimlessly," losing our way, being rootless or fickle. Maybe that's because, in the modern world, we tend to be so very goal driven, so fixated on getting from point A to point B, on making progress, proceeding towards a predetermined end.

We lose sight of the fact that wandering can also mean meandering, taking our time for the pure pleasure of it. It can also mean exploring, delighting in the joy of discovery. And it can also mean roaming, traveling from place to place in a deliberate fashion. This last form of wandering is characteristic of the nomadic way of life, the way of life that we associate with the origins of our people, and our faith.

The story of the Jewish people begins with Abraham in the city of Ur, who is commanded by God to leave the city and journey to the land of Canaan to become a nomad. He becomes a shepherd, roaming the land in search of green pastures and the water that sustains them. In other words, Abraham cannot become holy by remaining in the city. He is sanctified through an exodus of his own, and later witnesses how two other cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, have become the sites of sin and corruption, and are destroyed by God.

When periodic drought strikes the land, Jacob and his sons travel down to Egypt, and as we tell the story, they went down to Egypt to sojourn and not to settle. In other words, as nomads, that move was meant to be temporary. But their descendants are enslaved and forced to build cities for Pharaoh, specifically the cities of Pithom and Rameses, according to the Torah.

The exodus then was an escape from Egyptian cities and slave settlements, and a return to nomadic life. And as nomads, the Israelites would not have been wandering aimlessly in the desert, but rather following a circuit in conjunction with the changing seasons. Not a straight line from departure to destination, but making the rounds repeatedly, in harmony with their environment. It is during this period that the words of the Ma Tovu are uttered, classically rendered as, "How goodly are thy tents."

And the story of the return to the promised land begins with Joshua bringing down the walls of the city of Jericho. Jerusalem itself was not built by the Israelites, but rather conquered by King David to serve as the capital of his kingdom, and the site of the Temple built by Solomon. And without discounting the singular importance of Jerusalem, I want to suggest that we recall the lessons we learned from our experience as nomads:

As nomads, we learned that God, or if you prefer, the holy, the divine, or the spiritual dimension of existence, is not confined to any one place. There are no geographical limits to the encounter with the sacred. Transcendence can happen anywhere.

As nomads, we learned that the shortest distance between two points is not necessarily a straight line. That travelling in circles is not a bad thing. That the real world has curves, just as we later discovered that the planet is round, just as Albert Einstein later discovered that all of space is curved.

As nomads, we learned that lines and boundaries are creations of frail and fallible human minds, not commandments from God. That walls are meant to be torn down, to be shattered by the rippling resonances of sound waves. That houses and buildings, settlements and cities, and even nations, are not as permanent as they may seem. That what really matters are people, family, community, and beyond, to teach our children diligently, to honor our parents, to love our neighbors, and to love the stranger, for we too once were strangers.

As nomads, we learned that any given place is not all that important, that it is temporary, transitory. That our religion is not so much about space, but rather about time. We can pray anywhere, we can observe Shabbat, the festivals, and the High Holy Days anywhere, what matters is that we observe them according to the calendar, not the map. We learned that to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose.

As nomads, we learned that flexibility is better than fixity and rigidity. That being a seeker and a searcher is better than becoming too settled in our opinions.

As nomads, we learned to live in harmony with our world, and not be overly proud of our own inventions and constructions.

As nomads, we learned to be cautious about our circumstances, not to take things for granted, to know that situations can change suddenly, precipitously, catastrophically. To always keep one bag packed.

As nomads, we learned what it means to be free, what it means to be a people, and what it means to have faith.

This is the legacy we share, together, as a congregation. Wishing you a very wanderful Passover holiday!

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