The transforming, miraculous, and unifying experiences of Exodus and Sinai are now behind the Israelites. For the entire rest of the Torah, the Israelites will wander in the Midbar/in the desert — together, in freedom, in light of the overwhelming encounter at Sinai. Wandering toward the Promised Land will be the new normal for the Israelites. Herein is one of the wise existential teachings of Torah and one desperately needed today. There is no direct path to anything important in life – no final solutions to knowing ourselves, understanding each other or creating a just, ethical, and loving world.
There simply is no escape from Wandering. And the more complex and changing the society, the more circuitous and unnerving the Wandering…and the deeper and more desperate our yearning for control. This need for control can take many forms: Golden Calves and Tabernacles, con-spiracy (“breathing together”) theories and theologies, buying islands and luxury bunkers, and creating laws and norms. All are ways to navigate our wandering – to make sense of reality. Some take us way off course, and some work to help us make progress until they don’t. Then chaos ensues – we feel lost – and so we reform, we refigure, we rebuild, we retheologize, and we reimagine.
But, we should be careful not to seduce ourselves into thinking that with all of our capacities we can escape the unpredictability of Wandering. Whatever wisdom and ways we inherit, develop, and use to navigate a path – however much they may help us progress on our journey – they are contingent. Our advantage may be in realizing that – as the Torah suggests – wherever we are, whatever our condition – we are always Wandering in the Midbar. Even the Promise of the Promised Land will be quite illusive. We need to develop what the Romantic poet John Keats, in 1817 – a period much like our own – called, NEGATIVE CAPABILITY: “Being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Negative capability invites us to relinquish our need for certainty, resist our urge to reduce complexity to simple black-and-white binaries, and avoid premature rejection of new insights and syntheses – to explain what we do not understand. Instead, we are to cultivate qualities such as humility, patience, self-regulation, doubt, and the ability to discern, digest, and integrate multiple perspectives — virtues our culture has not valued over the past decades.
Wandering requires we metabolize the core religious and spiritual truth: What we see is far from all there is.
**Rabbi Irwin Kula will be part of a Yom Limmud (Day of learning) in Houston this coming Shabbat, at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston. More information and registration can be found by clicking on this link: https://www.houstonjewish.org/yomlimmud/
Irwin Kula is the co-founder and co-executive editor of The Wisdom Daily. A rabbi, Irwin’s writing has been featured in The Huffington Post and the Washington Post. He is the author of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life and a co-editor of The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices. Irwin has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The O’Reilly Factor and PBS Frontline. Irwin also serves as President Emeritus of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a leadership training institute, think tank and resource center in New York City.