The Children of Israel have divided themselves into camps, dedicated the Mishkan, and arranged themselves around the Mishkan, so that God, both literally and figuratively, now “dwells in their midst.” The time has come, in this week’s parasha, to decamp and move forward. How would they know when to move forward, where to go and where to setup camp? By watching the cloud over the Mishkan, the cloud that represents the Divine presence.
Following the movements of the cloud was not just a practical solution to knowing how and where to travel. In their moving forward they were following the Divine cloud, they were following God. The Torah goes to great length in this section to describe how responsive the Children of Israel were to the cloud’s movement, and how careful they were to follow it exactly:
And so it was, when the cloud was a few days upon the Tabernacle; by the word of God they camped, and by the word of God they journeyed.
And so it was, when the cloud abode from evening to the morning…
Or whether it was two days, or a month, or a year…
By the word of God they camped, and by the word of God they journeyed; they kept the charge of the Lord, by the word of God through the hand of Moshe. (Bamidbar 9:20-23)
This is not just a practical question of how a camp marches. It is a question of how we live our lives. If the setting up of the camp was the answer to how we orient ourselves to God’s presence in our midst, the journeying of the camp is the answer to how we orient ourselves to God when there no Mishkan to look towards or to enter into, no Kohanim to watch as they are doing their service, no sacrifices to bring and to place on the altar. The answer? “By the word of God they camped and by the word of God they journeyed.”
It is relatively easy to maintain our religious-orientation when we are in the synagogue, and when we are praying. But when we start to move away from the sanctuary things get harder. We tend to compartmentalize our lives, to do Jewish when we are in a Jewish context, and only in a Jewish context. When we move from the sanctuary to the home, it requires serious work to maintain this orientation. But with work, we can build such a home. A home filled with sefarim and Torah learning, a home filled with Shabbos warmth and zemirot, a home filled with mitzvot and menschlichkeit, is a home that has God at its center. Even small things can be significant. A home in which someone is always going to minyan, every day of the week, is a home that is oriented toward God, a home that is encamped around the Mishkan.
The real challenge is when we decamp and journey forward. When we leave the home and enter the big wide world what keeps us oriented towards God? Looking up. Looking for where the cloud is. Asking ourselves where God wants us to go. And, most critically, living a life that is about following the will of God, the commandment and word of God. “By the word of God they journeyed, and by the word of God they camped.” Living a life not only of purpose – not a small achievement! – but also a life of commandedness, of obligation. Living a life that before asking “Is this meaningful to me?” asks “Is this what is obligated of me? Am I doing what God demands of me?”
When a convert comes to convert, she is informed of the mitzvot that she will be undertaking, and we also tell her the consequence of transgression. Why is this second part important? Because she must understand that what is demanded of her is to accept upon herself the “yoke of mitzvot.” The “yoke of mitzvot” is quite different from the “lifestyle of mitzvot”. She is not only adopting some practices and customs, she is entering a covenant. She is accepting upon herself a life of commandedness, a life of obligation.
It is a life where certain acts are not just mistakes or wrong acts, but are sins. We as a community are reluctant to use the word sin. It is a concept which has, for us, lost its power, or, rather, retains its power, and is thus too scary for us, and so it disappears from our discourse. But if sin is absent from our religious life, then so is mitzvah, and so is kedusha. If we have lost the sense of God’s commandedness, of strict boundaries, limits, and demands, then there is no transgression, but also no transcendence.
To camp by the word of God and to journey by the word of God is without a doubt the bedrock of our religious life. It would be a profound mistake, however, to see it as the totality of such a life. Judaism is not Islam. We do not believe that the most central religious tenet is complete submission and negation of oneself. Quite to the contrary. We describe a life of religious commitment as one of “Torah and mitzvot.” Torah, of course, means that learning of Torah, and the learning of Torah is not a unidirectional activity. True talmud Torah is not just listening to what the Torah says, but it is engaging in conversation with it. This is particularly true when it comes to the Torah She’b’al Peh. Such Talmud Torah is about about shakla vi’tarya, give and take, kushya vi’teirutz, questions and answers, hava amina and maskana, theories and conclusion. It is about bringing the fullness of ourselves into a deep and thoughtful conversation Torah. It is about joining the Written Torah with the Oral Torah.
Our engagement with dvar Hashem, with God’s word, takes place not only in the study hall, not only with Torah, but in the larger world, in the world of mitzvah, as well. When the Children of Israel moved forward, they did not do solely on the movements of the Divine cloud. We did not just follow God, we partnered with God in moving forward. We made trumpets to call the camp to journey forth, and without them no movement would happen.
It was not just God’s word that moved us forward. We needed to be part of that process. And with involvement in the process comes ownership, comes identification, comes deep and lasting investment.
And if people are to be involved, then their voice needs to be heard as well:
“When the ark would journey forward Moshe said, Arise, o God…” (10:35).
And yet the other verse states, “By the word of God they shall encamp and by the word of God they shall journey’. How may these two verses be reconciled? … A parable to a king of flesh and blood who was travelling on a road, and his fried was travelling with him. When he would be ready to journey forward he would say, “I will not journey until my friend journeys with me’… Thus it is affirmed the verse “by the word of Moshe they shall encamp” and is affirmed the verse “by the word of God they shall encamp” (Sifre 84)
Moshe sings out a praise to God whenever the ark is to move forward or to come to a rest. His voice, his song, is heard, and it reverberates even until today, as we repeat it whenever our arks are opened and closed. But these did not remain words of praise. They became integral to the very journeying forth of the ark. Not only did the camp need to wait for the trumpet blasts before they journeyed, but – say the Rabbis- they needed to wait for Moshe’s voice as well.
And if Moshe has added his voice, the Rabbis in the above passage have rewritten a verse! “Thus is affirmed the verse ‘by the word of Moshe they shall encamp’.” But no such verse exists! True, but once Moshe’s voice has become part of the process, then “the word of God” also becomes “the word of Moshe”. Both “verses” are established, and both are critically necessary. It is a journeying that is achieved “by the word of God through the hand of Moshe.” (Bamidbar 9:23).
This is our challenge. On the one hand, how to live a life built on the bedrock of “by the word of God they journeyed”, a life of commandedness and obligation. And on the other hand, a life in which we do not just listen to dvar Hashem but passionately engage it with the fullness of who we are. A life that merges the Written Torah with the Oral Torah. A life defined by the verse we recite when the Torah is raised: “This is the Torah that Moshe placed before the Children of Israel” (Devarim 4:44) – to which we add our voice and append: “by the word of God through the hand of Moshe” (Bamidbar 9:23).