By Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein
From the day the mishkan was erected, the cloud covered the mishkan, the tent of the covenant … whenever the cloud rose from the tent, the Israelites would break camp; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites would pitch camp. Al-pi hashem (lit., by the mouth of the Divine) the Israelites broke camp, and al-pi hashem they pitched camp (Numbers 9:15-22).
This month, my wife Neysa and I are celebrating our 18th wedding anniversary. Ours was the first gay wedding in a Conservative synagogue in the Philadelphia area. Our aufruf parashah was B’ha’alotecha, and I led a discussion about this cloud that guided that Israelites.
The Torah describes very concretely how the Israelites were not the ones making the decisions about when to move on or even which direction to go — whenever the cloud lifted, that was when they would set out, and wherever the cloud rested, that was where they would stop and make camp. Sometimes the cloud would linger for many days, sometimes for just one night, and sometimes for a full year. However long the cloud lingered over the mishkan — that was how long the Israelites stayed put.
In my journey toward finding a life partner and career path, I was guided by a figurative Divine cloud. While my elders wanted me to settle down with a “nice Jewish boy” and become a scientist or doctor, that wasn’t what the signs in my body told me to do. I felt as though an iron rope was connected to my heart, pulling me in a particular direction, and when I did not honor where I was being guided, I descended into depression.
Over the course of many years, I have been coming more and more into alignment with how I’m being guided, and by listening to this guidance, rather than to expectations and insecurities, I am discovering joy, peace, and deep connection, even in the midst of this very broken world.
Living through this pandemic, mostly sheltered at home with my immediate family, is an experience of waiting for the cloud to lift from the mishkan. When will it be safe to go visit my parents, who are 77 and 81, in Washington, D.C.? When will it be appropriate to drive an hour for my teenage son to visit with a close friend? When should I go to the dentist for a mildly sore tooth?
There isn’t a simple clear answer when sorting through these questions in the mind. I am looking for the signs of when the cloud will lift and guide me to a new stage.
I generally prefer staying home and away from crowds, and my family has been keeping strict physical isolation to prevent COVID-19 exposure, yet the evening of June 2, I received an email invitation to a racial justice protest the following day at City Hall sponsored by POWER an organization that represents more than 50 congregations in our region, including seven Jewish congregations. POWER, which is marking 10 years of organizing in Philadelphia, brings together people across lines of race, income level, faith tradition, culture and neighborhood to address racism and economic inequality.
While it wasn’t my first choice to venture into Center City and risk possible exposure to COVID-19, I sensed that the cloud was lifting and that it was time for me to venture out. As I imagined going out, despite my concerns, I felt a sense of calm, clarity and my breath deepened on its own. I created a protest sign that draws from Leviticus 19, “Do not oppress your neighbor. Love your neighbor as yourself. Black Lives Matter.” When a parking spot opened for me a half block from City Hall as I arrived, I received that as another sign that this was a guided choice.
While in Center City, I witnessed the homeless men by City Hall, resting in the heat of the day, a visceral reminder of the impact of racism and extreme poverty. I witnessed the National Guard stationed in riot gear and felt the anger, fear and confusion that this aroused. Due to a helicopter whirring above us, I could not hear the words spoken during the protest, and I mostly stayed on the edges of the group to keep my distance; yet I felt the love and determination of this diverse group of people of faith calling for justice.
When the group was invited to “take a knee,” I kneeled down, and then was moved to bow my head all way to the ground, as we do during the Great Aleynu of the High Holidays — in humility, in atonement and in gratitude for life.
Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein is an artist, community leader and teacher of embodied spiritual practice. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.