Relationships are complex: They are beautiful and intricate, and at the same time fragile and tenuous. Often, we see our relationship with another as strong and secure, someone to fall back on in times of struggle as well as someone we can embrace in moments of joy. In an instant, however, be it through words or actions, relationships can fall apart. And so it is, not only with our fellow human beings but with all creatures, and even with God.
This week, we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, “in the wilderness.” To some degree, this is a great characterization of the Five Books of Moses — the challenges that come from wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. Wandering is common in life, especially in our relationships, drawing close in one moment, distancing in the next. And more meaningfully, the act of wandering, experiencing the ebbs and flows of our interactions with others, can be a way of renewing and re-energizing our relationships with the Divine and with our fellow human beings.
In this week’s Haftorah, a selection taken from the Prophet Hosea, we learn that the most sacred and iconic relationship in Jewish tradition, between God and the children of Israel, is threatened because of idolatry and apostasy. Professor Michael Fishbane writes, “The haftarah opens with a dramatic prophecy of renewal and blessing for the people of Israel (Hosea 2:1-3). The rejected nation (lo ammi — Not my people) shall be called ‘Children of the Living God,’ and the inhabitants of the southern region of Judah shall be joined with the northern population of Israel as one community. The restoration reverses the [earlier] rejection” and offers promises of hope that a severed relationship can once again be healed (JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot, on Bamidbar).
For our ancestors, the wilderness becomes analogous to a place of emptiness, of loneliness, of fear, a place of not only physically losing our way, but spiritually, too. The idea that our relationship with God (as with human beings) is vulnerable is a reality, yet many take it for granted. One day you’re best friends and the next, mortal enemies; one day you’re in a committed relationship and the next, an act or word can cause a fight or estrangement.
Fishbane writes, “The [wilderness] thus serves as a physical realm marking the transformation of [a] nation from bondage to freedom and a symbolic realm marking this same passage as a spiritual journey of rebirth. … The desert has a paradigmatic status in the life of the nation, marking change, transition, and new beginnings … the long-awaited passageway from physical suffering to spiritual renewal.” And I think this transformation is made possible because of the wandering. Wandering gives us space, the ability to take a step back to reflect on our actions and where we have strayed, so that we may grow, heal and start again.
The Hassidic master Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter once taught that the period between Passover and Shavuot, known as Sefirat Ha-Omer, marks a spiritual and physical transition from the Exodus to revelation at Sinai, an entering into an eternal covenant with God. The Sefat Emet notes that in order to receive the Torah and enter into a relationship with God, we must first begin our journey with wandering (Sefat Emet on Passover). More important, we must wander each and every day, year after year, as a way of continually renewing, receiving and strengthening our ever-evolving relationships with God and humanity.
The Prophet Hosea concludes his oration by likening the relationship of God and Israel to a marriage, an eternal partnership. Hosea concludes with a vow, perhaps one we can always strive to make with each other, whereby God recites to his beloved: “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me with righteousness and justice, with goodness and mercy; I will betroth you to me with faithfulness and you shall be devoted to the Lord” (Hosea 2:21-22).
Even amid the searching and wandering, whether estranged or on track, God commits to the Jewish people forever. As hard as it is to be in relationship with one another and God, perhaps struggling and wandering is made easier when it is rooted in righteousness and justice, goodness and mercy, faithfulness and a commitment that we are in this together. This might just be the recipe to help us renew our sacred relationships, even with the greatest challenges, for generations to come.
Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Conservative Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.