By Rabbi Helen Plotkin
We are reading the third portion in the book of Numbers. Exactly one year has passed since the Exodus from Egypt.
The Israelites have witnessed God at Mount Sinai and received the law through Moses. They have created the magnificent portable tabernacle, with its exquisite weavings, lamps and vessels, and the holy ark, overlaid with pure gold, to carry the tablets of the covenant.
Now it’s time to begin their journey to the Promised Land.
There are some lines in this section that people who’ve attended synagogue might recognize even if they don’t understand Hebrew. These lines are sung at the beginning of the Torah service as the ark is opened to take out the scroll (Numbers 10:35):
Vay’hi binsoa ha-aron vayomer Mosheh, Kumah, Adonai, v’yafutzu oy’vecha, v’yanusu m’sanecha mipanecha.
When the Ark would travel, Moses would say:
Get up, O Lord, so your enemies scatter and your foes flee from before you!
It is rather shocking to hear Moses speaking to God in the form of a command. At the head of the troops of the Israelites, there is no king. Instead, there is the Ark of the Covenant. Moses does not make the mistake of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark — he realizes that the power to scatter enemies lies in God, and not in the magical powers of the ark itself.
But it’s strange that Moses thinks he needs to take the initiative to demand God’s presence in this role. Only a few paragraphs earlier, the text made it very clear that God would lead the way. God’s presence is already visible to the community in the form of a cloud hovering over the tabernacle — a cloud filled with fire at night.
Straying from its usually terse style, the text used nine full verses (Numbers 9:15-23) to make the simple point that through the lifting and settling of this cloud God would show the Israelites where and when to travel, where and when to camp — be it overnight, for a few days or weeks, or for months or years. The point is drilled in until it is beyond doubt: The Israelites will follow the lead of God. And yet, when the time to travel arrives, Moses shouts, “Kumah, Adonai! Get up, O Lord!” Does Moses think that he is the one leading the way? Doesn’t he trust God?!
Compounding that question is the request Moses makes a few verses earlier to his father-in-law, a man from the nearby region of Midian, who knows his way around this wilderness. Moses asks his father-in-law, who is not an Israelite, to travel with the community.
When the man demurs, Moses beseeches: “Please do not abandon us, since you know our camping places in the wilderness and you can be for us as eyes” (Numbers 10:31). Even with the assurance that the cloud will play the role of a flawless divine GPS system, Moses urgently seeks out the knowledge of a local guide.
Perhaps in this passage Moses is a model for how a person who trusts in God is to behave. Following God through the wilderness, accepting God’s leadership on the journey, is not an exercise in passivity. It does not mean giving up initiative, and it does not mean putting aside the wisdom of the non-Jewish world.
God’s steadfast promise to lead the way does not obviate the need for Moses, at the crucial moment, to ask for God’s participation. The flow from above is activated by the desire below. And the repeated reassurance that every campsite will be marked clearly by the cloud does not obviate the need for Moses to use whatever resources he can muster to collaborate in the project of finding the way. In particular, he must seek wisdom that comes from outside the boundaries of the community.
Moses was fortunate in his marriage: It extended the scope of his family connections to include a wise man whose counsel was indispensable. (Remember how he helped Moses set up a workable judicial system in Parashat Yitro, Exodus 18? He has a different name in our portion — Hovav — but presumably it’s the same person.)
Moses’ command to God in Numbers 10:35 is followed by a second command in 10:36:
Uv’nuchoh yomar, shuvah, Adonai, rivvot alfei yisra-eil.
And when it [the Ark] rested, he would say: Come back, O Lord, to the myriad thousands of Israel!
When we take out our Torah, we chant Moses’ first command, “Get up, O Lord!” and when we put it away, we chant his second, “Come back, O Lord!” By surrounding our Torah reading with these lines, we bring all this complexity to our community’s relationship with God. We can no longer see the clear presence of God in the form of a cloud.
But we still try to put Torah at our helm, and we invite, beseech, even command God to get up and show us how to use it properly. And we are reminded of how fortunate we are in our connections to the rest of the world, connections that provide a constant flow of essential wisdom.
Rabbi Helen Plotkin teaches in the Swarthmore College Beit Midrash and at Mekom Torah, a Philadelphia-area Jewish community learning project. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.