This week we begin the Book of Numbers with the following:
1. And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they came out from the land of Egypt, saying, 2. Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of names, every male by their polls; 3. From twenty years old and upward, all who are able to go forth to war in Israel; you and Aaron shall count them by their armies.
This week we take a census of those able to be called to combat among the people. The rest of the portion is the names and numbers of these Israelites who are at Sinai. It is from this rather boring beginning that we get the English name for this portion, Numbers.
But in Hebrew, we call this portion B’midbar, which means in the wilderness. Hebrew books are named for the first significant word in their text, but this word is very descriptive of the entire book. B’midbar is the story of moving from Sinai to the land of Israel, and the trials and tribulations of the people along the way.
B’midbar as a story presents problems for many due to its violence. During the text everybody but three people die, all at the command of the Lord. Such an outcome is a bit much for many, complaining that a religious book condones that many people killed.
While the Torah is written in the language of humans, and we are to look at the literal meaning, I tend not to look at the literal story. This is not a story of individuals, but of a nation. Components of that nation do exist, and are specified but they are part of a collective. Moses, Miriam, Aaron, Joshua, Caleb, Korah, Dathan, Abiram, Pinchas and to some extent Balaam are just parts which may signify other parts of this collective body. In my view, this body is not even a body, but a mind, a soul. In this view, B’midbar is more than a really bad 40 year long tale of the road, but a journal of transformation from one state of mind to another. People in this view are different thoughts or scripts that we live with and dictate our actions.
But to begin this process of change we need to know who we are. We need to do not a census but an inventory, a taking stock of who is up there in our heads. This is the meaning of this week’s portion, to figure out who is really up there. Who is really making this journey? Where do we start? What is good and what might be problematic?
I’ve realized I’m about to begin another of those journeys. Change will require me to think about a lot of things differently. A change that happened about a year ago however is at the core of what has been happening to me. This change came at a big cost for me, the excessive exhaustion I’ve been feeling lately. A stomach and back that is killing me, a body that aches just about everywhere, an otherwise sharp memory forgetting way too much, and eyes that just won’t stay open are all signs of a bigger danger. Fighting to keep myself from falling asleep at the wheel is now a daily occurrence on my commute home. For weeks I know it has been building but this weekend was the worst. The 60 hour work weeks are getting to me. Even Shabbat is a mere drop of relief in a desert of exhaustion. During this weekend I decided to makes another journey through that desert to a land of Milk and Honey where I am living a life without this exhaustion. Working my consulting Job, my Quality job, and my computer job is just too much. Like most people in this economy, dropping one or all of them is not an option. I want to go to my wedding and not my funeral, but at the moment I’m headed towards my funeral just as fast as towards my wedding.
I made a few important decisions. The first is that I have to get rid of anything that wasn’t helping me make a living. What that translates to is dropping all of my volunteer activities at my Synagogue, some of my classes I’m taking, and most importantly dropping Shlomo’s Drash. Yes, I decided this is the last Shlomo’s Drash you will ever read. This column takes about four to six hours a week to write. Many of you might have noticed I have been reprinting old columns a lot lately, or posting this on Friday or even the Monday after and that is why – I have no time to write in the six days I do write. This was a decision I made after a lot of agonizing about it. For seven years I dreamed of being a Jewish scholar. Last year I realized the time investment to get that dream going and get some books, speeches, and other writing out into the market was not going to happen if I was to make a living in the meantime. That time consumption eventually ate the Wednesday morning I had allocated for Shlomo’s Drash, the one thread left of that dream. And now, just to keep up, I’m going to have to cut out the Drash completely.
Interestingly this issue of energy comes up in the Talmud.
Our Rabbis taught: Four things require to be done with energy, namely, [study of] the Torah, good deeds, praying, and one’s worldly occupation. [Brachot 32b]
While I am essentially making my life lopsided here, the Perkei Avot believes there should be balance in these
Rabban Gamaliel the son of R. Judah the Patriarch said: excellent is the study of the Torah together with a worldly occupation, for the energy [taken up] by both of them keeps sin out of one’s mind [ Avot 2:2]
There is also this
Our Rabbis taught: And thou shall gather in thy grain. [Deut 11:14] What is to be learnt from these words? Since it says, This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth, [Joshua 1:8] I might think that this injunction is to be taken literally. Therefore it says, ‘And thou shall gather in thy corn’, which implies that you are to combine the study of them with a worldly occupation. This is the view of R. Ishmael [Brachot 35]
To exclude Torah study from my life would indeed be dangerous. One works along with the other to make the person who does not sin. One alone is not enough.
It was last Sunday morning I was thinking about what I was going to write in this last column when I came up with the idea of the inventory. Thing was as I really began to do that inventory, I realized something. This is not just a matter of running out of time, but where my time is going. Overwork slows down my productivity so what I am doing in eight hours probably could get done in two if I was fully functional. But more importantly, the pile of stuff is not completely my fault. Most are projects I started months, if not a year ago that I am waiting for others to get me something. What I was remiss in doing was making sure they were getting me information in an efficient manner, so everything piled up on my desk. Ironically it is not a lack of time that is the problem but how I manage my resources that is. The only way I know is by keeping inventory of my resources, and allocating them appropriately.
That of course is what God is telling Moses to do. This is not just a count, but a way of understanding what resources are available. As we will see this is not a single event, but a process that will continue. At the end of B’midbar in Chapter 26, there will be another census to see the change from the beginning to the end of the journey. The journey of B’midbar is most of all a change of how we view the world. On one level it is the transformation of a people from passive slave mentality to the active observance of mitzvot, Avodat Hashem. The way there is not by killing people but by changing ideas. Each of the negative types of thinking that we will encounter in various characters in the next few weeks represents the negative thinking, the limiting beliefs or the self destructive behavior we all have at some time. In the face of adversity, or even perceived adversity as we will see, how do the Israelites respond? In the same way, how do we respond to adversity? What is the right thing to do and what is the wrong? That is the journey we will take here in B’midbar.
I am thus left with a decision. As much as I would love to reclaim that four to six hours a day to make a living, I also realized to do so would kill me. Maybe my salary feeds my body, but Shlomo’s Drash feeds my soul. Without it I would be dead spiritually, as it is my deepest most beloved Torah study. I need the Torah and the worldly occupation, one without the other is death. The time management inventory points out a lot I can do to change how I deal with time, and reclaim that time in another manner to make the Drash possible. So I will continue to write this, with the hope and prayer that one day it will be both my Torah Study and my worldly occupation.
Cayn Yehi Ratzon.