When life is stormy and confusing, wouldn’t it be amazing to have a spiritual navigation system to tell us what we need to do?
The end of the Book of Exodus describes just such a guidance system — providing direction, remarkably, for the whole people of Israel in their wanderings through the desert after the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).
The text tells us:
Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of God filled the Tabernacle. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on their various journeys. But if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of God rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys. (Exodus 40:35-38).
Picture the scene: A dense cloud covered the Tabernacle. When the cloud was in place (like a fog so thick one cannot see a step ahead), they stayed where they were. When the cloud lifted, they knew it was time to break camp and move forward on their journey. It seems that the whole Israelite camp could see the signs, and everyone knew when it was time to wait and when the time had come to move ahead.
While I cannot imagine how we could experience such a thing collectively in our time, I do believe that such guidance systems exist in our individual lives. Christian theologians speak of a practice called “discernment,” through which any one of us can perceive the path of wisdom at a given moment in our lives.
Those who believe in a personal God may sense messages offered to us, as if God had somehow communicated with us directly. But one does not need to have any specific view of the Divine to cultivate ways to make life decisions both large and small based on a wisdom greater than our own.
In no particular order, the following can be elements of a discernment practice accessible to any of us:
Torah study: As Jews, we can search the Torah for messages that have special meaning for us at specific times. The Torah was not written for any one individual’s needs. But a text understood to encompass boundless wisdom can contain truths that may be just what we need to hear at certain moments. Sometimes the weekly parashah contains a story or image that, if we open ourselves up to the text, gives us what we need as we wrestle to find our way.
Input from loved ones: If we listen carefully to those we love and respect, their spoken perspectives and the quality of their presence with us can shed light on a choice we need to make. Surely, the deepest truth about what is unfolding in our lives is not always accessible to others. But the ways in which our loved ones mirror the best in us and express concern about our struggles can light a way forward.
What is alive in us: There are times for making pros-and-cons lists. Should I take this job or wait for a better offer? Should I partner with this person or honor my sense that there is something deeply wrong? Even in everyday interpersonal situations, one might want to analyze the possible positive and negative consequences of a particular course of action. But the rational mind has its limits. When there is no way to “figure it out,” we may tune in to the movements in our own souls. What is most alive in us? Which path, as we imagine it, brings us joy, and which fills us with dread?
Unfolding of events: So, too, if we attend faithfully to the unfolding of events in our lives, we may learn from surprising encounters and occurrences. In spiritual practice, when the rational mind has failed to direct us in a way that feels right, we may find, in the everyday twists and turns of our lives, clues for how we are to move forward in our journeys.
May we find, in the final part of the Book of Exodus, a roadmap that we can use in our own journeys, charting a life of wisdom, even of holiness.