Friday, May 14, 2010


Get Something Out of the Wilderness…
Then Get Out of the Wilderness!
A Sermon for Parashat Bemidbar
Donald A. Levy

This week’s portion, Bemidbar, opens the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the five in the Written Torah. I know I offer this kind of knowledge repeatedly, but I’ll say it again. In larger circles we call the book, Numbers, because the theme that runs through the book is the taking of a census that will enable Moses and Aaron to organize the people Israel into an army of conquest. In Jewish circles we call the book – and therefore the book’s opening weekly portion – Bemidbar because the book opens with the words: “Vay’dabeir Adonai el Moshe bemidbar Sinai…” “Then Adonai spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…” The word midbar is often translated “desert” because the Sinai certainly meets the description of a desert landscape: unpopulated, dry, hot in the summer days and cold in the winter and nights. But the word “wilderness” is something broader in scope, meaning a place of challenge and possibility.

So the people Israel were in the wilderness – during the 40 years’ wandering – when the events chronicled in this book took place. But the wilderness, through which they wandered, was more than just a physical wilderness.

After a lifetime in Egypt – a narrow place of limited horizons and possibilities – the people were not ready to enter the promised land and to be a free people under the sovereignty of God until they had spend time in a wilderness. They needed to stop clinging to the safe, the familiar, the limiting. They had to have the chutzpah to reach for the possible, to re-imagine themselves as free people in a free land.

Folks, we often wallow in our own Egypts, places of comfort and familiarity, places of settled routines and predictability, instead of experiencing our wilderness, truly as a wilderness – a place where a better person can be forged. These qualities – comfort, familiarity, settled routines, predictability – are not in and of themselves bad. All of the aforementioned, in certain amounts, give us the courage to move forward into unfamiliar ground. But when our hearts and minds remain in a narrow place, we preclude the wilderness from being able to help forge us into the people we have the potential to be.

Look, I know this theme, and some of the details I’ll now proceed to give, are familiar to many of you. I’ve propounded these ideas from the platform again and again. And I’ll keep doing so until I have evidence that most of you ‘get’ it.

The element that limits us to a ‘narrow’ place so often, is the mindset that we lack something that someone else has. We limit our own potential by seeing ourselves, who we are and what we’ve achieved in the shadow of what someone else is, and what they’ve achieved.

This week, I encountered someone who has incredible talents, talents that I wish I had. Talents that I can only dream of. But this person can only think of what she doesn’t have and she is therefore feeling miserable right now.

If only my kids were smarter, if only my salary were more generous, if only more people cooperated with me, if only my husband were more helpful. Please, please, please…don’t try to decode the identity of who I’m talking about. It could be any one of us!

Folks, I want to draw your attention to my face. Is it a nice face? Most people wouldn’t think so. Hollywood only casts men with faces like mine, as villains. Women with faces like mine? They don’t get cast at all! No matter what I do in life, no matter what goodness I spread or don’t…there’s a portion of humanity that will see my face and typecast me as loathsome.

I don’t say this to complain. Rather I want to point out that I am among the happiest people in this room. Why? Because I have learned to say, the hell with the ridiculous stereotype! I’m going to reach for the best that’s in me. Have I reached it? No, like everyone else in this room I’m a work in progress. Each day, I learn something new about what I can do and think about where God would have me go, what God would have me do. Every day is a blessing from God. Every day represents new opportunities. Every day I have a new opportunity to reach toward the person that I will eventually become. That’s the key to escaping from the narrow place, the limiting Egypt of our minds and letting our sojourn in the wilderness truly open us up and let us spread our wings.

So you want to be happy? Become a rabbi! Just kidding! Figure out what you’re supposed to become, and work your way toward that vision of yourselves by dropping the narrow vision of yourselves that you’re carrying around, and carrying around, and carrying around until your poor back is hunched under the oppressive weight of that vision!

Celebrate your kids, even though they’re insufferable, because they’re a gift from God. But at the same time, understand that they need you to be a parent – and sometimes that entails pushing them beyond their comfort zone.

Celebrate your profession, even if your salary isn’t as high as you’d like it to be, because it’s your calling. And if it’s not, find what is your calling and find a way to pursue it. Perhaps in so doing, you’ll end up achieving a higher salary. Or more likely, you’ll realize that the size of your salary isn’t nearly as important as any number of other things.

I know someone – actually, I’ve known several individuals – who actually moved from careers with higher salaries to careers with lower salaries in order to respond to the calling that was within them. In so doing, they had to live more modestly, but they became happier! For some, this entails leaving the business world for teaching. And that does not negate that for some, teaching feels limiting to them and they can only find their vocational happiness by leaving teaching behind for something else.

I have spoken before about the importance of weighing decisions, because when we choose between various alternatives that has a way of constricting our choices in the future. For example, what we do when we are young can limit our possibilities later. Want to be an astronaut? You have to be a military pilot first. So you want to be a military pilot? First, take those silly earbuds out of your ear, because you need perfect hearing to be accepted for pilot training. Also, don’t experiment with drugs, or get in any kind of trouble beyond a minor traffic violation or you won’t be accepted. And get your act in gear before the age of 27, because 27 is the maximum age to enter pilot training. If you want to be an astronaut, and therefore first a pilot, you’d best grow up fast, keep your nose squeaky clean, and focus yourself early.

Okay, so you didn’t do all those things…or perhaps you were born with some physical limitation that precludes you from military pilot training, or perhaps you tried but didn’t make the cut. If means you’re much less likely to be an astronaut. But maybe there’s something else within you, something that if you achieve it, it will also make you happy. But you’ll never find it if you spend your life feeling sorry for yourself because you couldn’t be an astronaut.

I mention this specific thing – being an astronaut – because I have a dear friend who dreamed of being one. And he was definitely on the way to becoming one. He was an Air Force fighter pilot, then a test pilot, earned a scientific master’s degree and even asked me to teach him Russian and sat many hours in my living room, conjugating Russian verbs with me. Ya lublyu. Ty lyubish. On lyubit. My lyubim. Vy lybitye. Ony lyubyut. And that’s not to mention aspect! Mne prosto zhal! Why did he want to learn Russian? Because of our partnership with the Russians in the International Space Station, he thought being able to speak some Russian would help him transcend other candidates for astronaut training.

Well, he never made the cut. But he went on to other things and has a very successful, happy life. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he went on to new challenges. He’s an executive in a big corporation, a Colonel in the Air Force reserve…and is running for the Indiana State House. One of his twins attends the Air Force Academy, and the other Purdue. What does he have to complain about? Nothing…so he doesn’t. But many of us, if put in his position would let the one thing we didn’t achieve, fester and annoy and ruin anything and everything else that we did achieve.

And what if he had become an astronaut. Well, this man probably would have found it fulfilling and happiness-inducing. But what about Lisa Nowak? Recognize the name? She was a young naval officer, a Captain – same as a full Colonel in the other armed services – who made the cut and became an astronaut. And yet she was incredibly unhappy, so much so that she lost it all by terrorizing a romantic rival. From being an elite of the elite, she ended up in a Florida jail among prostitutes and drug addicts because of the chip on her shoulder that blinded her to the happiness that she lacked but, by all accounts, should have enjoyed.

Friends, wilderness is a part of life. Each of us, at some time, must pass through a wilderness if we are to leave behind the narrow horizons that limit us. So we step into a wilderness to our choosing in hopes that it will forge us into the person we have the potential to become. But that transition – from what we are to what we may become – is not automatic! Until we’re ready to let our wilderness improve us, and let us grow, and open our eyes to what limits us so that we can leave it on the desert floor…then we’re going to remain stuck in the wilderness.

If we continue to feel sorry for ourselves because somebody out there is more attractive, or smarter, or makes a better salary, or has a nicer house or less debt or more savings…we will never achieve happiness. And the tragedy is that there is no limit in the number of happy lives possible in the world; like personal wealth, happiness is not rationed. That my neighbor achieved it, doesn’t give me one less chance to achieve it.

If you’re in a narrow place, step into the wilderness. And when you’re ready to allow the wilderness to do its work, then you’ll be ready to get out of the wilderness. The wilderness is a good place, because it can help us to become what we might become. But at some point, we must also have the courage to step out of the wilderness and into the garden of possibilities.

This transition – from narrow place to wilderness to garden of possibilities – took the Israelites 40 years. Each one of us has the ability to make the transition far faster. May each of us find within us the strength and courage to make that transition and thus become the happy people we can be.