This is the wandering of Bamidmar, in the wilderness. This is the progression, the journey, the move, the trek, the way we got through moving from one place, and the way we arrived at another.
When the book of Bamidbar begins, the Israelites are still at the mountain. Still there, in the place where Moses came down with the tablets holding the Ten Commandments, still there where they heard the teachings and responded that they will do and they will hear, still there where they built the Golden Calf and betrayed (cheated) on God by setting up a new god, still where they were a group of slaves who escaped with their lives….and a lot of animals.
But now it’s time to go. Poor Moses! How do you move that many people in an orderly fashion? And even more important, how do you maintain the emotion and the power of the experience, as the grinding day-to-day existence of moving through the wilderness wears you down? How do you make the experience of Sinai portable?
This has been the challenge of Judaism since Sinai, and especially since the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. If you think about it, it’s odd that we don’t really know the exact location of Mt Sinai, the very spot where the group of ex-slaves was transformed into a nation. If we knew where it was, surely it would have become a place of pilgrimage. There would be some instruction in our tradition on how often to visit that place, and what to do there.
But there isn’t. Judaism was created in the wilderness, Bamidbar. This was a place of emptiness, a silent place. And to fill that empty space, we were told to build the Tabernacle, or Mishkan. God was on the mountain, but we couldn’t stay there, so we were told to build the Tabernacle, so God could come off the mountain and travel with us. The Mishkan was a portable Sinai. The people couldn’t come close to the mountain, and they couldn’t just walk right up to the Tabernacle either. Much pomp and ritual surrounded the Tabernacle, which is what a lot of our last book of Leviticus is about.
Since the time of Bamidbar, the wandering in the wilderness, we have come to the Land, build two Temples that became the focus of Jewish life for that time, and left the Land again. Again, we built portable places to pray, only this time they were called synagogues. No more offerings of animals and incense, just the offerings of our hearts and our words. And for many years, especially here in America, the synagogue became Sinai, where we could gather and re-live the experience from the wilderness. The synagogue has its own share of pomp and ritual; some more, some less.
Not all of us go to synagogue; in fact, only those that do go regularly are in the minority. Yet I think there is still a desire to recapture that Sinai experience, feel that communal ground-shattering event forge invisible connections between us.
Something happened out there in the Wilderness, at the mountain, something that we recall every year at this time. The holiday of Shavuot brings us back to Sinai, where tradition tells us that all Jews were present – even Jews from the past and the future.
The Mountain became the Mishkan, became the Temple, became the Synagogue….becomes us, each of us an individual place where we can encounter God in silence, from the wilderness inside our own souls. We still need community, though, still need to gather together at the Mountain and experience the profoundness of that time and place.
See you at Sinai.