Monday, May 28, 2018

Parashat BeHa'alotekha: Losing Control

Losing Control
A Message for Parashat BeHa'alotekha 2017
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We want to know what is likely to happen so that we can do something about it. If interest rates are going to skyrocket next month, then we want to shift our money out of bonds right now. If it is going to rain this afternoon, then we want to grab an umbrella this morning. Knowledge is power, and the most important reason why our brains insist on stimulating the future even when we’d rather be here now, enjoying a goldfish moment, is that our brains want to control the experiences we are about to have. (Daniel Gilbert)[1]
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Parashat Beha’alotekha begins the long march of Am Yisrael in the wilderness. As they set out on that journey, the Torah described the exact process of their travels and encampment:

And as the cloud lifted from the tent, then Bnei Yisrael would journey onward, and in the place where the cloud would abide, there would Bnei Yisrael camp. By God’s word Bnei Yisrael would journey onward and by God’s word they would camp… (Bemidbar 9:17-18)

Although the itinerary was unilaterally decided by God, Moshe was instructed to aide in its performance:

And God spoke to Moshe, saying, “Make you two silver trumpets…and they shall serve you for calling the community and for the journeying of the camps. And when they blow them, all the community shall meet with you at the entrance of Ohel Mo’ed. (10:1-3)

The journey began:

And it happened in the second month on the twentieth of the month that the cloud lifted from the Mishkan HaEdut. And Bnei Yisrael began on their journeyings from the Wilderness of Sinai, and the cloud abided in the Wilderness of Paran. And they journeyed on from the first by the word of God through the hand of Moshe… (10:11-13)

This section of the parashah is appropriately concluded by a description of the Aron’s role on their journey:

And they journeyed on from the mountain of god a three days’ march, with the Aron HaEdut journeying before them a three days’ march to scout for a resting place for them. And God’s cloud was over them by day as they journeyed on from the camp… (10:33-34)
Immediately before those concluding verses, however, the Torah described a conversation that took place between Moshe and his father-in-law, Hobab:

And Moshe said to Hobab son of Reu’el the Midianite, Moshe’s father-in-law, “We are journeying to the place of which God said to us, ‘It will I give to you.’ Come with us and we shall be good to you…” (10:29)

Following Hobab’s refusal, Moshe continued to insist:

And he said to him, “Pray, do not leave us, for do you not know our encampment in the wilderness? And you will serve us as eyes…” (10:29)

As this short conversation concluded, the text conspicuously omitted what would appear to be the most critical detail – did Hobab come along with them or not? R. Yonatan Grossman suggested that this is apparently not the crux of the story. The Torah’s intention in recording the conversation between Moshe and Hobab was not for the ultimate decision, but rather for the ways in which Moshe attempted to convince him.[2] What message, then, did the Torah seek to impart through its recounting of this plea of Moshe?
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In his best-selling book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, sociologist Yuval Noah Harari described a shift in the history of mankind from the ancient “foragers,” who constantly lived on the move in search of food and resources, to the onset of farming during the Agricultural Revolution. He explained that this change brought forth the dominance of mankind’s prospective thought, as farmers must always keep the future in mind and work in its service. The seasonal cycles of production and fundamental uncertainty of agriculture forced people into constant thought of the future. Necessary worries sprang into their minds. Nightmares were now consumed by the thought of drought and flood. And people did all that they could to prepare for the future – storing excess foods, clearing away extra fields, digging additional irrigation canals and sowing more crops.[3]

In a recent article entitled “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment,” psychologists Martin E.P. Seligman and John Tierney argued that humans are best distinguished as a species by their ability to contemplate the future. They suggested we alter our reference to humans as Homo sapiens, or “wise men,” to Homo prospectus – as our most unique characteristic is the ability to consider our prospects. Seligman and Tierney explained:
If you’re a chimp, you spend much of the day searching for your next meal. If you’re a human, you usually rely on the foresight of your supermarket’s manager, or you can make a restaurant reservation for Saturday evening thanks to a remarkably complicated feat of collaborative prospection.
This example is built upon a joint imagination of a future time – Saturday, which exists as a collective fantasy. You trust the restauranteur to acquire food and cook it for you, and she trusts you to show up and give her money, which she will accept only because she expects her landlord to accept it in exchange for occupying his building. The authors further presented a study that found that people think about the future three times more often than the past, and explained: “Our brain sees the world not by processing every pixel in a scene but by focusing on the unexpected.”[4]
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It is of little use to us to be able to remember and predict if it makes us unable to live fully in the present. …If, then, my awareness of the past and future makes me less aware of the present, I must begin to wonder whether I am actually living in the real world. (Daniel W. Watts)[5]

As Am Yisrael set out for their journey in the wilderness, they were immediately told to cease all future thought. They understood that planning for the future was useless, as they were powerless in affecting it. By God’s word Bnei Yisrael would journey onward and by God’s word they would camp. Their method of sustenance was taken out of their control, as well. It now came in the form of the manna which poured down from the sky, whose purpose, God said, was “that I may thus test them, to see whether they ill follow My instructions or not” (Shemot 16:4). Consistent with our depiction of Am Yisrael’s journey in the midbar, Ibn Ezra explained that the manna tested the nation’s acceptance of the difficult reality of “needing [God] each and every day.”[6] Am Yisrael was effectively instructed to return their thoughts and vision to the time of the ancient “foragers,” and to focus on the past and present, while setting aside all plans for the “uncontrollable” future.

The Torah’s description of the journey process was interrupted by Moshe’s plea to his father-in-law. Moshe’s objective was clear: “And you will serve us as eyes.” In a situation which God had informed would not be controlled by humans, Moshe sought some control through the “eyes” of Hobab. The conversation was cut short by the continued description: “And they journeyed on from the mountain of god a three days’ march, with the Aron HaEdut journeying before them a three days’ march to scout for a resting place for them. And God’s cloud was over them by day as they journeyed on from the camp.” The message is clear: Am Yisrael’s journey in the wilderness was to be governed by rules that were different than life’s general reality. Man’s “eyes” and future vision played no role on this mission. Am Yisrael would be fully dependent upon the decisions of God during this period.

God’s plan for the nation upon their journey in the midbar holds a message that expands further than the forty years of sun and sandals. It is a lesson about relationships. Though Am Yisrael would soon enter a “future looking” agricultural society in Eress Yisrael, their first priority was to cement the building blocks of their respective relationships with God. A healthy relationship begins with a sense of vulnerability. It is the sense of trusting the other party, and relinquishing some self-control. It is a “leap of faith” in the other, entrusting them with secrets and decisions which were until then yours alone.

By cutting short Moshe’s dialogue with Hobab, the Torah contrasted the necessary first steps of a “mission” with those of a “relationship.” It taught us that enduring relationships begin with the courage to step into a state of vulnerability and to accept the loss of total control.

[1] Stumbling on Happiness (New York, NY, 2006), pg. 21.
[2] See Torah MiEtzion (New Milford, CT, 2014), pg. 116. Although I share R. Grossman’s suggestion for the general significance of this episode, I diverge from his thought in my understanding of its particular meaning.
[3] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York, NY, 2015), pg. 100-101.
[4] Martin E.P. Seligman and John Tierney, “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment,” The New York Times, May 19, 2017. Available at:
[5] The Wisdom of Insecurity (New York, NY, 1951), pg. 34-5.
[6] Commentary of R. Avraham Ibn Ezra to Shemot 16:4.