by Cantor Jordan S Franzel

Maybe you remember this computer game from the mid-1990’s…It came with virtually no instructions and was incredibly complex.  ּPlayers of this game would insert a disk into their computer and after the game was loaded they would find themselves in some kind of beautifully drawn landscape. With incredible detail each scene in the game was a delight for the eyes. After staring at the screen mesmerized and wondering “what is going on here?” the players would realize that they can move through the landscape on paths and into various structures and manipulate certain objects on the screen. The more you played the game, the more the game revealed to you how to play.  And the point? It’s that you would learn and eventually discover, after much exploration and experimentation with and within this fantasy world, the meaning of it all.

Of course as soon as the game was released someone put together a crude manual full of hints, warnings, and solutions to the many puzzles and pitfalls of the game.  I admit that while I was in Cantorial school in New York City I spent the time that I was not studying playing this game and I confess that I bought that manual.  Even with the manual, the game was still complex and confusing as it was fearful and fun. A game with no instructions, with moments that seem random, with amazing complexities and amazing beauty, this is life.

For many, life is painful with only glimpses here and there of true contentment or happiness in between the endless inconveniences and setbacks.  For some, life seems to be an eternal blessing where everything seems to go right and everything touched turns to gold.  For most of us, we live in between these two extremes of pain and wholeness.  Sometimes we are overjoyed with our accomplishments or with what life throws our way and sometimes we are frustrated, confused, disappointed, and scared of what may happen in our future and scared about how the scars of our past will affect us in the present.

The human condition is that we are all living in this world with no clear blueprint, all of us wandering through the wilderness of our lives where we have very little control of what happens in our universe. Our tradition teaches that perhaps the only thing that a human can control is their reaction to life. The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah affirms that through repentance, prayer, and righteousness one can temper the severity of life’s changes and challenges.  And those familiar with the ‘serenity prayer’ know to ask that we can recognize the difference between the things we can change and the things that cannot be changed.

In the Torah portions found in the book of Numbers we find the children of Israel in this state of wandering.  They were literally wandering. Having left the oppression of slavery, the lowest point in our collective story, the Israelites find themselves in the wilderness, or desert, following Moses who keeps going up a mountain and claims that he hears the voice of God. A set of ten laws had been given followed by an additional 603 sacred responsibilities that we now find contained in a scroll we call the Torah.

The book of Numbers, or as it is better to refer to it by its more appropriate Hebrew name, B’midbar which means ‘in wilderness or desert,’ is a fascinating collection of stories that are a little more sophisticated than the stories we find in Genesis. It deals with a newly formed people and the growing pains they feel as they transition from Egyptian servitude to serving the God of Moses, their reluctant leader.

A portion that we read from the book of B’midbar, seems to concisely set the paradigm for the human condition and is a pivotal part of the Torah and Jewish history as it is the portion in which God dooms the generation of the exodus to die in the desert. The portion known as Sh’lach L’cha describes the mission given to 12 men, each the head of their tribes, by Moses.  These scouts or spies enter the land of Israel, or K’na-an and take a tour and survey of the land. All seems to go well until the scouts return to Moses and the people. It is their reaction to the land and their subsequent report that angers God enough to put a curse on the children of Israel.

Of course not all the scouts give negative feedback. Two men, Joshua and Kaleb, are positive and support the plan to cross into the land. But because the10 negative scouts spread fear across the camp, God became incensed and put a curse on the desert generation, that they would have to wander aimlessly for 40 years and they would all die before reaching the Promised Land.

The Rabbis assigned a date to the devastating pronouncement of this curse, Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av. This date also shares other tragedies in Jewish history such as the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. For some the Ninth of Av is a symbolic day for commemorating all Jewish tragedies, including the various expulsions of Jews from European countries. In the spirit of solemn days, the observances of Tisha B’Av are similar to Yom  Kippur in that there is a 25 hour fast and other restrictions.

Six days after the 9th of Av, which coincides with the beginning of the desert damnation, there is another, somewhat obscure holiday known as Tu B’Av or the 15th of Av. Coinciding with the commencement of the grape harvest, Tu B’Av is associated with the ending of the anathematized people’s wilderness ordeal.

The story goes something like this; when the curse kicked in it was the responsibility of each Israelite, who was 60 years old, to go out deep into the desert and dig a grave. Each year approximately 15,000 Israelites did this on the 8th of Av. When the sun went down and the 9th of Av began, each person would lay in their custom made coffin and go to sleep. During the night they would all die. This went on for 40 years. If you do the math you will realize that this results in 600,000 Israelites dying in the desert, the number symbolic of those that stood at Mount Sinai.

Because of their lack of trust and the spreading of fear, that caused everyone to lose hope, the 10 scouts and their entire generation who listened to them were doomed. By deserting their faith they got their just deserts by having to die in the desert. This is considered by the Rabbis to be more of an infraction and infringement of faith than the episode with the golden calf. However, after the 40 years were over, the new generation merited to achieve the ultimate goal, to be a free people in our land.

Getting back to the story, after 40 years on the 8th of Av all 15,000 60 year olds went deep into the wilderness with their shovels and dug their graves.

As day turned to night they lay in position, it was the 9th of Av. When the morning came, the 15,000 miraculously woke up. They did not die! Thinking that perhaps they got the date wrong, the 15,000 lay in their graves another night and in the morning they again woke up. This went on for a total of 6 nights. On the evening of the 7th day everybody noticed that the moon was full, indicating that it was the 15th of the month and the curse must have been lifted. With ecstatic joy the 60 year olds all broke their shovels knowing that they wouldn’t need them when they made it to the Land.

Spreading fear, loss of faith, aimlessness, self doubt, these are all the symptoms of a people who are deficient in spiritual consciousness and who feel distant from their Creator. The remedy the Torah gives for their infringements is that they should literally be in fringes. This section of the book of Numbers concludes with the instructions to wear the tzitzit or fringes on the four corners of our garments. They are supposed to be visible at all times in order to remind us of the 613 commandments and especially the commandment not to wander aimlessly off the spiritual path.They are the Jewish force field.

The wandering of the Jewish people in the desert and the scouting out of the land of Israel are important parallels to how we live our lives in modernity with all the high and low moments we encounter every day. We may feel that we are in some surreal game that has no clear instructions and we are getting sidetracked at every corner. It’s very easy to embrace negativity in these situations. This is the reason for living a spiritual life.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that it is the human being’s responsibility to sharpen consciousness of the spiritual, to feel direction and purpose, and to move from the side of destruction and negativity to the side of repentance and hope. He said, “if you believe you can damage than believe that you can repair.” The dramatic breaking of the shovels after the 40 years in the desert was that last act of the Israelites breaking free from the shackles that bound our souls before we were ready to enter Eretz Yisrael. 

In the aftermath of remembering the damage to our holy places and displacement of the Sh’chinah, the presence of God, we are moving from actual destruction to a time of healing and restoration symbolized by the beginning of the grape harvest. As the juice from grapes is often used to mark the holiness of time and space it is most fitting that grapes are in our consciousness at this time of year. Soon we will enter the month of Elul, the time of preparation for the High Holy Days. As we strive to renew our commitment to covenant and spiritual consciousness may we, like the grapes, whose season ends with Yom Kippur, experience the holiness that is in every corner of every land.