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Marching Out Of The Wilderness

A Sermon Delivered on March 23, 2018

This week, I’ve spent some time thinking about my first bible class in Rabbinical School. One of our assignments for that course was to create an outline of the Torah.  I had two very distinct and memorable reactions to this assignment.

The first was: “Oh well. Rabbinical School’s been fun while it lasted.” And the second- which was thankfully more deeply felt and longer lasting- was, “Ok, Let’s do this.” In that class, we spent the semester examining the structure of the Torah and learning about the different ways that scholars explain how the Torah as we know it was created. What I want to talk about tonight is the large unit within the Torah that my professor called the “Wilderness Repository.” This label is used to refer to the section of text which begins when the story is essentially paused in the book of Exodus and concludes only after the Israelites had wandered for forty years in the desert. Scholars like my professor, Dr. Aaron, believe that the “Wilderness Repository” functions as a kind of expandable literary device which allowed the redactors of the Torah to include a wide variety of texts and stories that would not have otherwise fit in the overarching narrative. The “wilderness” was a place amorphous enough that it could be expanded to include all of the lessons and traditions that it needed to. Dr. Aaron’s is a literary answer for the very obvious question that occurs to us when we read the Torah: namely, “Why does it take the Israelites 40 years to get from Egypt to the Promised Land?” To this question, scholars respond with, “Because it needed to.” Interestingly, if we were to ask the ancient rabbis why it took the Israelites 40 years to get from Egypt to the Promised Land, they too would answer, “Because it needed to.” But, for the rabbinic tradition, the reason that this journey needed to be so lengthy was not because the redactors needed more space. Instead, the rabbis offer a different explanation. They argue that the journey took 40 years because a change of leadership needed to occur. The older people, who had survived slavery, were always ready to doubt the possibilities of the future. In fact, just hours after they had escaped from Egypt, the Israelites encountered their first potential obstacle when they arrived on the shore of the Sea of Reeds. Instead of trusting that they would succeed in their journey, the adults threw up their hands and yelled at Moses asking him if it was for want of coffins in Egypt that he had brought them into this new trouble. The people’s doubts are understandable. They had lived lives of fear and hardship. But, even as we understand their reactions, the Torah and then the rabbis tell us that this was not the attitude of those who would lead us into the Promised Land. In fact, not even Moses, who had overwhelming trust in God and in the future of the people, was allowed to take the Israelites to their ultimate goal. Instead, it was Joshua, the scout who had reassured the people of their capabilities, who was deemed worthy of completing this task. As I’ve said, I’ve been thinking about this time in the wilderness a lot lately. And, I have to say that “wilderness” is a pretty apt way to describe parts of the landscape that we have been traversing over the last forty years or so. Tomorrow, thousands and thousands of people will march to demand that those in leadership take action to protect their lives. Tomorrow, young people will show all of us that we have been like those who were overwhelmed by the burdens and the history that they carried and forgot how to dream. Tomorrow, young people will show all of us that we have been wandering in the wilderness for far too long. It is difficult to accept or even to imagine that our collective sense of skepticism could have kept us wandering when each moment lost in the wilderness has come at the cost of someone’s safety. But, it is our responsibility to consider exactly that. 

We have dreamed dreams, but the youth are seeing visions.  And now, it is our obligation to follow as they lead us. We have been lost, but they seem to have found the path forward. Who are we to argue with them? And so tonight I say to each of us- L’chi Lach. To a land that they will show us. Lech Lecha. To a place they seem to know. L’chi Lach. On their journey, we will bless them. And they will be a blessing - for us all. Shabbat Shalom. 

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