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Beha'alotcha 5782       June 18, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

     We read in the 18th chapter of Exodus; the people of Israel arrived at Mt. Sinai. There, with much smoke and noise, the Torah was revealed to the people. A people who was recently freed from Egyptian slavery now had a law that would guide their society as they strived to become a nation dedicated to the God who had made them free.

     The Torah here takes a long detour from the history of these people and begins to explain how this new law is to work. Giving the law was done in less than a day. Learning how to live with these laws, how to explain them, how to interpret them, how to apply them becomes the theme of the rest of Exodus, all of the book of Leviticus and the first nine chapters of Numbers. After more than a year at Mt. Sinai, after building the Mishkan and establishing the sacrificial service, after appointing the Kohanim and the Leviim, after teaching all the people how to be a “holy” people, the time has finally come to set out to the Promised Land. The order of the march has been set. Trumpets will be blown to indicate when each group is to set out on the journey, and now, in the second month of the second year at Mt. Sinai, the signal is given to begin the journey.

     How do the people know when it is time to set out and when it is time to stop? The Torah teaches that once the Mishkan was built, a fire encased in a cloud appeared to settle over the tent. When that cloud lifted off of the Mishkan, the people knew that it was time to pack up and prepare to move on. The cloud would then start to move and wherever it went, the people would follow.

     The cloud guided them by day and at night, when a cloud could not be seen, the pillar of fire appeared. When it moved the people would let it guide them. When it stopped, the people would also stop and set up the camp. Sometimes it would stop for a brief time, sometimes for a long time; sometimes for a day and sometimes for a year; no matter how the cloud moved, it guided the people in their travels.

     The cloud thus acted as their GPS device. It gave them the directions they needed to reach their destination. The cloud of course, was their indication from God about how they were to travel. Like a GPS it would indicate which path was the best for them to travel and it would lead them to their destination. My son, Hillel, one of the other Rabbi Konigsburgs, noted that although they thought they would arrive after a relatively short journey (only later would they be punished with a forty-year trek) they did not want to get lost or confused by the terrain they had to travel. The Sages note that Moses asks his father-in-law to also guide them. Perhaps while the cloud gave them important directions, there may have been obstacles that would need to be navigated by someone familiar with the terrain.

     Rabbi Hillel Konigsburg further elaborated on this act of Divine guidance. He teaches that there is an important lesson for us in this divine GPS. We too struggle with the idea of when we need to stay in one place and when we need to move again. As the song by The Clash says, “Should I stay, or should I go?” So many people struggle with just that issue. When it comes to relationships, when it comes to jobs, when it comes to social gatherings, it is all about figuring out “Should I stay, or should I go?”

     There is something important about knowing when we should stay. There are important moments when we have to make this kind of a decision. If we were present at the Capital in Washington DC on January 6, and we saw what was happening, would we decide to stay or would we be the one to say, hey, this is not what I signed up for, I am out of here? There are hundreds of other moments, some that seem so minor that we might not think of them right away, but our decision can also have a bigger long-term impact. Do we stay to collect ourselves and try to understand where we are and how we can make the best of what is happening around us? Should we stick with what is familiar and what we can do well? Do we look for ways to stick to what we know is safe? Or even something more routine; do we stay and eat with our family each night for dinner? Should we make sure we are home to give our small children a bath? Do we stay with members of our family and our friends as they go through a challenging time and circumstances? When does that cloud tell us it is time to stay?

     Or when does our cloud lift and tell us it is time to go? When we get too attached to one circumstance or another, we sometimes cling to it when we know we should be moving on. One author I read a long time ago put it this way: our reluctance to move on is like a wet diaper. It is warm and comfortable but eventually it begins to stink. This is not just about overstaying our welcome, it is about our fear of what is new and what is unfamiliar. Think back. Was there a time when we had to consider staying in a job that was going nowhere, where we were not appreciated, where we always were frustrated and yet we would hang on to the work because it was possible that any new job could be worse, or we might not find something new? Think about the challenges of retirement. Do we stay working or is it time for us to stop working? Have we given our work all we can and now is the time to let someone new try their hand at the work? Are we blocking others from moving up because we are not yet ready to move out?

     How do we know when it is time to try something new? If you talk to younger people today, they speak a different language than those who are past middle age do. They are careful about using the pronouns that other people prefer to use. We are used to using He and She, but now some people prefer to use “They.” For the generation right behind us, they understand in ways that we do not always see, that sexuality is not just binary, not just male or female. Even the initials LGBTQ are not enough so they add a + to the end so that if someone has a different gender than the seven listed, they too can be included. We often do not realize the microaggression that is in our speech until someone points it out and then we feel like they are being too “sensitive.” Should we also be sensitive to the diverse ways to speak about others? Do you know what BIPOC stands for? Should we care about Civil War statues that are being taken down? Should we care about the names of sports teams that are offensive to Native Americans? There is a new way to approach the world, do we move on and enter it, or do we stay with what we have used for most of our lives?

     I also find this in the way children are being raised by millennials. It makes us wonder how we could ever raise good children if we put them in a crib with a blanket, if we let our babies sleep on their stomachs, if we dressed them in blue or pink, assigning our children a gender when they might someday prefer something different. We can bemoan “Woke” culture all we want but that is the new way to teach respect for those who are different from us. Should we adopt these approaches? Are we ready to move our lives into a new generation? Should I stay or should I go?

     Our Judaism teaches about moving or staying still. Judaism sometimes tells us to move on, and sometimes tells us to slow down. All week we learn how to make our way in this ever-changing world. But one day a week, we are told to stop and slow down. We are taught to consider where we are and where we should want to go. The late Rabbi Sidney Greenberg of Philadelphia once wrote that we often move at “twice the speed of sense.” We do need to make important decisions but sometimes we also need to stop and think about what we are doing. Shabbat gives us the time to step away from the constant motion of life and to find a quiet space to rest our brains so we can make better decisions when we are ready to move on.

     The motivational guru Steven Covey once was consulted by a young man who was visiting a city and was offered a new job that came with more money and more responsibility, but it would require uprooting his family, being far from relatives and leaving a place he had called home for many years. He asked Mr. Covey if there was any advice about his predicament. Covey told him that when he was ready to go home, he should not travel by air, but to book a train ticket. It would take a couple of days to travel back to his home by train. Sitting in his seat and watching the world go by, the young man had the time to fully consider his options, to ask himself the tough questions and to consider all sides of the problem. By the time the young man got home, he knew what he needed to ask his family and what he was prepared to do.

     Every journey, through space and through time, requires us to know when it is time to move and when it is time to stop; when it is time to go or when it is time to stay. Life does not always come with a traffic light to blink red or green in our life. We do not have a divine message to let us know what we should do. We do not know if where we are now should be a place where we spend a long time, or whether our time here should be short. There is no set answer for every person. We have to discover for ourselves: “Should I stay, or should I go?” 

     Whatever we decide, there will be difficult terrain to cross. We will still need mentors, friends, and advisor to help us on our way. Many of the obstacles we will face look formidable but if we decide to move forward to conquer them, we will often find that they are just an optical illusion. What looks like a mountain from one side, is revealed as only a speed bump when we see it in our past.

     Sometimes what is familiar and comfortable is just the right place for us. We do not have to conquer every challenge that presents itself to us. Sometimes just being in one place is all that we need to feel safe and secure. We only have to decide what is right for us. As my father used to say, “If you don’t know where you are going, you will never know when you will get there.” The pillar of smoke and the pillar of fire that guided our ancestors helped them know where they were going. Whether moving or staying, the goal was always to reach the Promised Land.

      Sometimes I hear people tell me that they come to shul to ask God to help them figure out what they should do with their life. That is a perfectly appropriate prayer. The only question is are we really listening for the answer? May God always guide us, if not with a pillar of cloud or fire then may God guide us to listen to the answers to our prayers as they arise in our hearts. May we learn how to know when to stay or when to go and to always find our way closer to God. Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, December 11 2023 28 Kislev 5784