Leaving or Moving, Open or Empty!?

A Final Offering to the Riverway Project Community, May 14, 2021

She stands on the road looking ahead and what does she see?
Option one: absolutely nothing. 
Option two: a colorful, abundant skyline, endless opportunity.
A person stands on a road, bag in hand, staring at a vast expanse:
is it full of emptiness or openness?

This image by Mari Andrew,
a writer and artist who beautifully explores the inner life,
offers us two ways to think about the moment of moving,
moving on, departing, transitioning,
while looking back, reflecting, and acknowledging the journey.

It's such a powerful question that she poses.
When you look forward and look backward on your own life:
What do you see?
Emptiness or openness?
How do you look back on a year like this one?
Or the years and decades prior?
And when you look ahead, can you look ahead yet?
And what does the expanse offer you:
Emptiness or Openness?

This was a question our ancestors wondered, too, as they wandered the great expanse.
The first portion and the whole fourth book of Torah is called Bamidbar.
Bamidbar can be translated as:
in the wilderness, or in the desert,
Bamidbar - an expansive place, vast, unknown.
Scary animals? Maybe.
Water? Unclear.
Emptiness or Openness?
It remains to be seen.

We just recently concluded the book of Leviticus
reciting the words customary for completing a book of Torah - 
Chazak Chazak v'Nitchazek
Be strong and we will be strengthened.
It is a prayer for strength that holds us in the expanse 
between finishing one book and starting another.
The wilderness is not new at this point in Torah. 
We’ve experienced the desert, the wilderness,
all the way back in the Book of Exodus, 
right after the Israelites are freed from slavery in Egypt.
But the wilderness in this book of Torah
is what Torah scholar Aviva Zornberg calls 
“an inscape...a world of imaginative being,”1
an interim space ever extended, where we continue to ask ourselves:
What will the future hold?
Emptiness or Openness?

We might look to our own experience for the answer.
Have you ever been to the desert?
I recall my times spent in the Negev Desert in Israel, 
the Sinai Desert in Egypt, the Mojave desert in California, 
the Southwest Desert in the red rocks of southern Utah.
It was a vastness I have never before known,
a landscape that induces the inscape, 
the inner experience of deep reflection, of awe, of inspiration, 
Of WOW, how did these beautiful spaces come to be?
Of: Wow, I am but a piece of sand in the hourglass of time!
Is the desert a place of Emptiness or Openness?

We might look to other Torah moments 
in the wilderness to find our answer:
Hagar in Genesis is in the wilderness.
It is there that an Angel of God hears her cries, 
where her experience of being cast out is heard and seen.
Her son Ishmael also grows up in the desert.
As he grows into a strong adult,
the text tells us that God was with him, too.
Moses is in the wilderness when he encounters 
a bush aflame but not consumed.
There he hears a call from the Divine to save his people.
So is the wilderness Empty or Open?
It seems that the Torah thinks the wilderness,
in which the Israelites dwell for MOST of the Torah,
is a place 
of Divinity, 
of Recovery, 
of Introspection, 
of Growth,
of Openness. 
Bamidbar is a place of Hope!

But as I wax poetically of this great expanse we call the wilderness,
the Torah portion actually starts off with…
a census.
You’re in the middle of the desert and you pull out a calculator?
What an unusual thing to pack!
This census for the Israelites is meant to take an accounting of their community
to see how many men of age they have,
should they need to fight the various unknowns they might encounter in the desert.
For we moderns, I think we can return to waxing poetical.
I imagine this calculator to look more like a gratitude journal,
where we ask ourselves:
Do I have the spiritual resources for this journey?
Who are my people on whom I can lean?
What are my memories that I’m taking with me?
How will I know when I get there?
Where does the unknown desert landscape end and the future begin?
Bamidbar: is the wilderness Emptiness or Openness?

I believe Judaism, Jewish ritual, Jewish learning,
Jewish time, Jewish practice of all kinds - 
from bagels to Bmitzvah
from challah to the chuppah
from gefilte fish to the graveside - 
cultural and spiritual alike,  
all of this is helps us move through the experience of being human,
which from the day we are born, and even before, 
is a vast wilderness, a treacherous journey of being human,
nourished by the abundant oasis of being alive, 
of finding water when you are parched, 
of shade when you are weary, 
of softening pain in enduring loss,
of joy in discovering love.
Bamidbar, the wilderness, the desert, the expanse of being human: 
Is it emptiness or openness?

And so the Mari Andrew’s image offers us two options.
The top of it says - Moving.
One option is a woman on a road holding a suitcase, 
staring into an empty expanse,
with a conversation bubble that says “I’m leaving.”
But the other option is a woman on a road holding a suitcase
staring into a colorful abundant skyline and endless opportunity,
and her thought bubble says “I’m expanding.”

So as we enter this wilderness, 
this in-between space, this expansiveness, 
my census tally, my taking stock with the calculator I packed,
(even though I can only do math in Jewish multiples of 18) is this:
I pray that we all have the spiritual resources for our life journeys, 
with loving friends, family, and community on whom we can lean, 
with abundant memories, 
and an inscape of reflection, curiosity, honesty and gratitude. 

How will we know when we get there?
We never quite know.
Because each time we get to wherever “there” is, 
it’s already time to move on to the next moment.
I pray that Judaism always holds us in these moments of transition,
which is all the time.
For that was always my goal:
to show us Judaism’s great capacity
to gently hold us all just as we are, 
and to remind us to be present with gratitude.

So I thank you:
each as individuals, as collective community,
as the sacred holy humans that all of you are,
for letting me share my love of Judaism and Jewish community with you.

So what’s next?
I will continue to write, 
support couples on the pathway to marriage, 
help people create spaces for ‘good grief’,
and continue my podcast
the OMfG Podcast: Jewish Wisdom for Unprecedented Times,
because all of life is exactly that.

So is the Wilderness a place of 
Emptiness or Openness?
And that’s because there are possibilities in emptiness
and there are possibilities in openness.

Let it be true then that moving into wilderness is not just leaving, 
but a journey where I pray we can each say with pride, comfort and joy…
“I’m expanding.”


 Aviva Zornberg, Bewilderments, xi.