When we make important decisions in our lives, what thought process do we go through? For most of us, it probably involves asking a series of questions, such as: “Is this what I truly want?”; “Am I doing this for the right reasons or for the wrong reasons?”; “Will this be good for me in the short term? In the long term?”; “Will it allow me to best achieve my potential?”; “Will it be good for my spouse and my family?”. If we are truly virtuous, perhaps we will also ask: “Is this good for others, for Klal Yisrael, for the world?”. And maybe, just maybe, we will also ask: “Is this the best way for me to serve God?”.
All of these questions, even the last one, are variations of one fundamental question: what is it that I – given my values, my relationships, my priorities, and the things that I care about – most want to do? This core question reflects a Western mindset; it is a mindset that prizes autonomy and self-direction and that places the individual, her concerns, ambitions, and self-actualization at the center.
Contrast this to the verses from this week’s parasha:
On the word of the Lord the children of Israel journeyed, and on the word of the Lord they pitched: as long as the cloud abode upon the tabernacle they rested in their tents. And when the cloud tarried long upon the tabernacle many days, then the children of Israel kept the charge of the Lord, and journeyed not… on the word of the Lord they abode in their tents, and on the word of the Lord they journeyed. The charge of God they kept, by the word of God, by the hand of Moshe. (Bamidbar 9:17-23)
The repeating refrain here is: “On the word of the Lord they moved and on the word of the Lord they journeyed.” The question that the Children of Israel are asking themselves here is not: “What do I want to do?” but “What does God want me to do?”
The children’s song tells us that “You’ve gotta sing when the spirit says sing,” that we should be guided not so much by our rational thought but by our inner spirit. The Torah tells us that “You’ve gotta sing when God says sing,” that we should be guided by an attempt to understand and follow what it is that God wants us to do in life.
This way of thinking is quite hard for most modern people to accept. We value our autonomy. Owning our decision making, seeing ourselves as self-directed, is probably the central part of our sense of who we are. Is the Torah then telling us that our true goal is to negate our identity and to be merely a vessel for the Divine will?
The answer is no. For immediately following these verses of camping and journeying on the word of God, God commands Moshe to “make for yourself two trumpets of silver… that you may use them for calling the assembly and for journeying the camps.” (10:2). Our voice is necessary as well. The trumpets are not God’s trumpets, nor the community’s trumpets. Rather, Moshe is told to make them “for yourself”. As Rashi notes, quoting Hazal, they are to come from his own silver, and they are his personal trumpets, to be used only by him. And their first use is not to move the camps forward, but “for calling the assembly”. To be used, as Rashi explains: “when you desire to speak with the Sanhendrin and the rest of the people.” They are to be used to serve your purposes, if and when you want to use them.
These trumpets, then, are Moshe’s unique voice. This is a voice that he – like every individual – does and should have. But the next step is to take that voice and wed it to the Divine command. God moves the cloud and points the way, and Moshe blows the trumpet, giving expression to God’s will: “By the word of God through the hand of Moshe” (9:23).
The message is clear. God’s will is best followed not by blind, robotic obedience, but by finding our unique voice and using it to make God’s word real. Only through the combination of the two will we be able to march forward.
How does this play out in real life? It starts by owning our decisions. If I am encamped, if I am staying put in my job and in my relationships, that itself must be a decision. “By the word of God they encamped… as long as the cloud was over the Mishkan they encamped.” Too many people run on autopilot, having made a decision at one time in their lives and then never revisiting it. They wake up 20, 30, 40 years later and wonder how life got away from them. Most people regret much more the choices they failed to make, the risks they failed to take, than the ones they did. If we are going to stay put, let it be a conscious decision to stay put.
But whether we decide to stay put or to go forward, we must ourselves different questions than we have been accustomed to asking. Not “What is best for me?” And not even “What is the best way I can serve others, or serve God?” But rather, “What does God want me to do?” Does God want me to stay put or to move forward? And if to move forward, where does God want me to go?”
The answer that we give ourselves to that question will be one that will be shaped by our own unique voice. At the end of the day, how I come to understand what God wants of me will be filtered through my own worldview, personality, and biases. And even if two people both have heard an identical message – even if they each understand that God wants him to help the underprivileged, or to become a doctor, or to make money and support worthy causes – the specific, concrete application of that word of God will be different for each individual, will put each person on a different path, reflecting his or her unique talents and opportunities.
This dialectic of God’s will and ours, of God’s command and our voice, is nicely captured in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (2:4):
He (Rabban Gamliel) used to say: Make His will like your will so that He will make your will like His will. Negate your will in the face of His will, so that He will negate the will of others in the face of your will.
Notice that Rabban Gamliel does not call upon to abandon our own will. He readily recognizes that we have our own desires, our need to accomplish and advance ourselves, and this is a good thing. Don’t give that up. But make it work together with what God is asking you to do. “Make His will like your will” – ask yourself what God wants you to do, and then make it what you yourself want to do. But then, guess what happens? What you had wanted for yourself becomes – by this process of interpreting and applying of God’s will – what God wants from you as well. Perhaps sometimes it will feel like you are giving up something that really matters to you, that you have negated your desires for God’s sake. But in the end you will find that by dedicating yourself to this larger purpose, by making yourself a vehicle for God’s will, your life becomes directed and purposeful. This makes others want to hitch their wagon unto yours, and it allows you to achieve what you truly want out of life.
Sometimes, as Modern Orthodox Jews, we might be inclined to find fault with Haredi Jews who – from our perspective – have given up too much of their autonomy, who live a life only of “by the word of God they encamped,” and not by “you shall make yourself two silver trumpets.” But if there is truth to this, then we, as a Modern Orthodox community, have erred too much on the other side. We live our lives too much by following the sound of our own silver trumpets. Even when we live a life of observance, of doing mitzvot and serving God and serving Klal Yisrael, we too rarely ask: “Is God telling me to encamp or is God telling me to move forward?” Let us all strive to move forward both by God’s clouds and by our trumpet blasts. By the word of God, by the hand of Moshe.