Parshat Beha’alotecha: Taking the First Step of a Journey

Last night, I was up with my mom who is visiting from Cleveland for the weekend, and we watched a TED Talk by Philippe Petit, a remarkable man who, among other amazing feats, walked on a 180 foot tightrope between the two World Trade Center Towers in 1974. Listen to his words as he describes the experience of taking that first step from the building onto the tightrope:

Well nonetheless, on the top of the World Trade Center my first step was terrifying. All of a sudden the density of the air is no longer the same. Manhattan no longer spreads its infinity. The murmur of the city dissolves into a squall whose chilling power I no longer feel.

I lift the balancing pole.

I approach the edge.

I step over the beam.

I put my left foot on the cable, the weight of my body raised on my right leg anchored to the flank of the building.

Shall I ever so slightly shift my weight to the left?

My right leg will be unburdened, my right foot will freely meet the wire.

On one side, a mass of a mountain, a life I know.

On the other, the universe of the clouds, so full of unknown we think it’s empty.

At my feet, the path to the north tower — 60 yards of wire rope.

It’s a straight line, which sags, which sways, which vibrates, which rolls on itself,

which is ice, which is three tons tight, ready to explode, ready to swallow me.

An inner howl assails me, the wild longing to flee.

But it is too late. The wire is ready.

Decisively my other foot sets itself onto the cable.

Life can be like this venture out onto the tightrope – a series of small steps, of constant motion away from somewhere or something towards somewhere or something else, a dynamic series of beginnings and endings, periods of being settled followed by periods of change and motion. All the while, the rope we walk vibrates beneath us, moves and shits in unpredictable ways.

This way of looking at life is seeing life through the framework of The Journey. We have all been on Journeys like this before, whether small or large. We have been on them, felt that first step from the familiar into the unknown.

This week’s Torah portion, Beha’alot’kha, is about taking that first step, and the challenges that come with this one small gesture of motion. In Beha’alotekha, B’nai Yisrael, makes their final preparations and take that first step away from the Mountain and onto their Journey into the Wild, into the Unknown.

“And it came to pass on the twentieth day of the second month, in the second year, that the cloud went up from above the Mishkan of the Testimony. And B’nai Yisrael journeyed forth to their journeys from the Wilderness of Sinai and the cloud rested in the Wilderness of Paran.” (Bamidbar 10:11-12)

Later in the Torah, Moses describes the people as : “Nos’im anachnu el HaMakom / We are journeying to the place… OR we are journeyers heading to the place.” (Bamidbar 11:29)

What does the Hebrew word “masa/journey or “nose’a / journeyer” mean?

According to Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch:

“[This Hebrew root] really means to raise oneself out of the resting place one has hitherto occupied, hence, to break camp, to set oneself in motion. Then it also means continuous breaking up, remaining in motion, to journey….In our chapter it accordingly occurs with both meanings: striking camp and journeying forth. Here: – they struck camp to start the journey which lay before them till the entry into the Promised Land.”

Who knew that Philippe Petit and Rabbi Hirsch were speaking the same language when it comes to describing The Journey.

How do we begin a Journey? Just like Philippe Petit described – from being at rest, stable and stationary, slowly and surely, one prepares oneself to take that first step away from the familiar, overcomes the inertia of the present, drawing forth the energy and momentum that we need to set ourselves in motion, carry ourselves forward into the unknown.

So where have we been sitting for the past few months of the Torah reading? Like Philippe Petit, on the mountain. His mountain was the World Trade Center; our mountain was Mount Sinai.

In the Torah’s timeline, we sat at the foot of Mount Sinai, for better and worse, for a little more than one year. Since the Golden Calf, things were relatively peaceful. The place, the mountain, the rocks, every detail of our surroundings had become familiar, commonplace and begun to be our home. This is a problem, because we know that we were not home yet. The final destination lies in a land beyond the current small world of a camp of escaped slaves.

At this point, it is critical that we get up, take that first step and begin to journey – again. When we left Egypt, we were journeying FROM somewhere. Now, the situation has changed. We are no longer just journeying FROM somewhere, now we journey TO somewhere.

Rabbi Shefa Gold, in her book Torah Journeys, notes that this week’s Torah portion “describes the inner gesture of “setting forth” as we continue to move through the wilderness. Our journeys are in some sense always just beginning. Wherever we stand in our lives can be perceived as the place of infinite potential, the intersection of Being and Becoming, the threshold of the beyond. From this vast potential of “here and now” we are either sent to who we are becoming or we get stuck in the traps of illusion or fear.”

At some point, at the foot of Mount Sinai, we transmogrified from Becoming Free to Being Free, and now comes the time to Become something else – in this case, a people, a nation living in their own land. If we had stayed at the mountain, we would have become stuck in the illusion that our home was the Wilderness, among the rocks, afraid to move forward and Become who were are meant to be.

What do we do to effect this inner gesture of “setting forth,” of beginning the next phase of our Journey? What do we do to prepare ourselves to take our other foot off of the mountain and walk across the tightrope into the Wild and Unknown?

Centering Ourselves

The primary task we undertook then was to become a people centered on God and the Torah, both literally and figuratively. In the middle of the camp stands of the Mishkan, the physical representation of God among the people, and at the heart of the Mishkan, the two Stone Tablets that represent the dynamic relationship between us and God. This centering is the main structure that makes taking that first step possible: we know who we are.

Light

Next, we receive the gift of light, which represents vision. You need to see where you are headed. Aaron and his sons are given instructions for lighting and maintaining the Menorah that sits in the heart of the Mishkan. The Menorah is not like other lamps. Each of the six outer lights shines towards its central stem, not outwards away from the lamp. This light lights our way forward, and dispels shadows of all kinds, both outer and inner darkness.

Pesach Sheni

Then we did something that we will not do again for the next thirty-nine years: celebrate Pesach. This is the first Pesach since the actual event itself. Pesach, the ritual of remembering, is so important, that even if someone missed Pesach legitimately, they have the opportunity to do Pesach again one month later. Before we take that one step off the mountain, we remind ourselves of where we are coming From, and know where we are going Towards.

A Guide To, and No Longer a Guide From

Now we turn to a new model of leadership. From the moment Moses returned to Egypt until this moment, we journeyed under Moses’ leadership, but now there is shift in the direction of guidance from Moses to God. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch comments:

“From Egypt to Sinai they had also journeyed under Divine guidance through the agency of Moses. But to journey in the way that was now prescribed for them, viz. as the people of God’s Torah, in orderly organized groups around the Sanctuary of His Torah, directed to rest or journey on according to the cloud resting on, or rising from, the Evidence of the Torah, and led by the Ark of the Covenant in the van, in that way they had never yet wandered.”

Beginning with this first step of their journey Towards somewhere, we shifted our trust from Moses taking us Out to God bring us In. To take a step like this requires that we leave the familiar and step into the unknown with a leap of faith.

Sound

God commanded us to fashion two silver trumpets that announce what is happening at each moment. The trumpets gather us, prepare us to move, herald a coming battle or other obstacle, and to convene celebrations and festivals.

These two trumpets are our inner voice that counteracts our “inner howl”, as Philippe Petit put it. They provide the music that soothes the beast inside of us that is full of self-pity, anger, doubts, craving, and complaints. The music of these trumpets centers us, reminds us what we are doing and focuses us on taking that next step in the Journey, to pause for a moment, to move forward again, to help us confront the obstacles that we come across, and to celebrate each accomplishment along the way.

What are these?

All of these preparations help us maintain our balance along the way, like the balancing pole of the tightrope walker, using the weight and the force of the pole to counteract the wind, the rope, the air, and the moments of hesitation.

Conclusion

As Rabbi Shefa Gold said, “Our journeys are in some sense always beginning.” Every moment carries the potential for us to move from Being to Becoming, from standing still to being in motion, from being closed to becoming open. At every moment, we have one foot on the mountain and the other in the air, on the threshold of a Journey’s beginning.

Despite the sags, the sways, the vibrations, the ice, the weight, the tension, the explosions explode, all we need to do is take that first step.

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