This morning I paced around my house, as I often do, trying to settle into my daily prayers.
Most days I’m distracted by my to-do list and the feeling that I should be getting on with the day. This morning, tired and achy and a little sad and lonely, I could tell that it was a day to take it easy. A day to quiet my mind—the voice pestering me to get things done—and listen to the slow, sad, tired voices of my body and my spirit.
It’s been almost a year since I quit my job and launched this blog to chronicle my journey. Inwardly, it has been a year of exploration and discovery, even revelation. A year of deep valleys but also some peaks, or at least foothills.
Outwardly, though, it looks like a desert year. A year of unemployment (semi-voluntary though it is). A year of illness and long-term treatment that is only beginning to show results. A year of slow progress on this Mary Oliver Challenge, the challenge of learning to be myself and to love what I love.
When I’m engaged in doing—chores, projects, spending time with friends—I can feel that I’m making progress and have something to show for myself. But when my body or my mind or my spirit tells me it’s time to rest, I get discouraged. How vast is this wilderness that I have to cross! How long it’s taking me to get to where I think I’m supposed to be going!
Finally, I sat myself down with Rabbi Yael Levy’s meditation on this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha, from the Book of Numbers. The book’s Hebrew name is B’midbar, “In the Wilderness.” It recounts the travels and travails of the Israelites after God has liberated them from Egypt, has revealed Godself at Sinai, and has delivered to them the Ten Commandments and the entire Torah. Jewish tradition celebrates the bestowal of Torah as a great gift. But for the Israelites in the wilderness, it proves a profound burden, one they often find unbearable.
In Beha’alotecha, Moses and the Israelites have just finished setting up the mishkan, the temporary but elaborate house of worship they have built according to God’s detailed blueprint. Now God provides one last instruction, about lighting the menorah that will burn perpetually.
This Torah portion, Rabbi Levy says, “invites us to lift up the lights that reside within us. To lift up the lights of love and awareness and compassion.” And it invites us “to notice the light, to notice the guidance that flows to us … to notice the signs, to be aware of the wonders that guide us on our way.”
God has told Moses that when the people build the mishkan, God will dwell among them. Beha’alotecha tells us that on the day they set up the sanctuary, God’s presence descended upon it as a cloud by day and fire by night. Whenever the cloud lifted, the Israelites knew it was time to move on. Wherever it settled, they made camp and stayed until the cloud lifted again. “Whether two days or a month or a year—however long the cloud lingered over the mishkan—the Israelites remained encamped and did not set out.” (Numbers 9:22)
The Torah portion invites us “to notice the signs and also be patient and wait for them to appear,” Levy says. “Each breath is a reminder that the universe unfolds as it will. And a soft, gentle reminder for us to be patient and slow enough to notice the signs that show us the way.”
Tears flowed as I listened. For me, that’s as rare and precious as water was for the Israelites in the wilderness. Like a desert oasis, Levy’s words brought me relief and sustenance.
Be patient and notice: sometimes you need to travel; sometimes you need to sit. Truly a message I needed to hear today, when my body and my psyche were telling me to rest.
After all, I thought, how much did the Israelites have to produce in the wilderness? They didn’t have to work for their food; God provided their daily manna. They raised their families. They tried to adjust to their new lives of freedom from slavery in Egypt and to serving God instead of Pharaoh. They made a ton of mistakes, several of them fatal. They were working on themselves, not necessarily as individuals but as a people, with many setbacks and few measurable successes.
But wait: the Israelites did have a big job in the wilderness. The mishkan was a major construction project with exacting specifications. It was a lot of work for a structure designed as temporary, to be used only until the Israelites reached their promised land. (They had no idea that would take 40 years.) The mishkan was also designed to be portable—but that, too, was a massive undertaking. The whole thing had to be taken apart, pole by pole, every time the Israelites moved on. They had to carry all the precious pieces with them. They had to reconstruct God’s dwelling place every time they camped again.
Everything is temporary. During an uncharted life stage like the one I’m in, that truth brings comfort as well as unease. The construction work may be painstaking, but we don’t know how long it will be needed or how long it will last.
The disassembly and reconstruction are a continuous process. Before I can move forward, I have to take things apart. And every time I pause—whether for two days or a month or a year—I am rebuilding myself.
May I find the light to guide me. And may I have the awareness to understand why my journey feels so slow and so heavily burdened: because I am carrying my mishkan, my dwelling place for the divine, with me wherever I go.