an antique drawing of a great cloud hovering over the mishkan with israelites worshipping
"The Tabernacle in the Wilderness" from the 1890 Holman Bible

We must savor the moments of harmony we are lucky enough to experience

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Numbers 8:1-12:16

The truth is that we are all heading to unhappy endings.

If we take a step back and consider the big picture, we are all going to die. If we take an even bigger step and consider where humanity is heading, things don’t look good. Even if we wiggle ourselves out of climate change, nuclear warfare, asteroid collisions and global pandemics, our solar system has an expiration date.

Scientists estimate that the sun has about 6 billion years left to burn.

Most of us who aren’t astronomers don’t spend much time pondering the specifics of this reality, but we all have some vague knowledge of the fact of the eventual collective demise of humanity, and we all must at some point come to terms with the truth that we will die.

The authors of the Torah didn’t have our scientific knowledge, but they were intimately aware that life steers us away from happy endings.

Instead of offering definitive happily-ever-afters, the Torah shows us an ongoing push and pull between connection and disconnection. From the first chapters of Genesis to the end of Deuteronomy, an ongoing dialectic between harmony and disharmony runs through the Torah.

This begins with bucolic Eden and the subsequent fall. It continues through Noah and the flood. We have the twists and turns of the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Just when something like a stable equilibrium is achieved, time keeps moving forward and we read about upheaval.

When the people of Israel arrive in Egypt at the end of the book of Genesis, it seems that they have a promising future with a friendly pharaoh. But then the Israelite population kept growing, and a “pharaoh who did not know” them rose to power. (Exodus 1)

The moments of connection and tumult continue through the Exodus and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Israelites cross the Sea of Reeds and sing the joyous Song of the Sea. Then merely three verses later, they start complaining about the conditions in the desert. (Exodus 16:3)

The sequence of tragedy, complaints and moments of connection continue with this week’s parashah. In Beha’alotcha, we read about a beautiful moment when things come together. After receiving a code of laws, details about how to set up the tabernacle and instructions for rituals, the Israelites have a moment of harmony with God.

Instead of offering definitive happily-ever-afters, the Torah shows us an ongoing push and pull between connection and disconnection.

It is worth quoting the parashah at length to get a sense of this period of connection:

“On the day that the Tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the Tabernacle, the Tent of the Pact; and in the evening it rested over the Tabernacle in the likeness of fire until morning. It was always so: the cloud covered it, appearing as fire by night. And whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out accordingly; and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would make camp. 

“At a command of Adonai the Israelites broke camp, and at a command of Adonai they made camp: they remained encamped as long as the cloud stayed over the Tabernacle. When the cloud lingered over the Tabernacle many days, the Israelites observed Adonai’s mandate and did not journey on. 

“At such times as the cloud rested over the Tabernacle for but a few days, they remained encamped at a command of Adonai, and broke camp at a command of Adonai. And at such times as the cloud stayed from evening until morning, they broke camp as soon as the cloud lifted in the morning. Day or night, whenever the cloud lifted, they would break camp.” (Numbers 9:15-21)

I read this rhythmic passage as offering a temporary consonance between the Israelites and God. This Divine cloud and the people journey together peacefully through the desert, following God’s lead in holy harmony.

This moment is temporary. There is then a dispute over leadership between Moses and his siblings, Miriam and Aaron.

But there is this period of connection, this moment when the universe seems to be in sync with itself. The Torah teaches us that even if we are ultimately heading toward unhappy endings, we are offered moments of harmony that we should savor.

In fact, sometimes the temporariness of life can help us savor our fleeting moments of connection.

In an interview on NPR published in June, Jack Antonoff, the 40-year-old music producer best known for working with Taylor Swift, described how he draws inspiration from his late sister, who was terminally ill but savored her time on Earth because she knew her life would be short. She died when he was 18 but had been sick since he was 5.

“The thing about sick people, people who are unsure how long they’ll get to live, especially kids in that position, is the lack of cynicism,” Antonoff said. “The obsession with creation, joy, love, family. When you might not have a lot of time on Earth, you don’t define yourself by the things you hate, put very simply.”

It’s not always possible for those with illness to appreciate life in this way. But Antonoff’s late sister and our Torah teach us to savor the moments of harmony we are lucky enough to experience.

Our stories don’t have Hollywood endings, but they do offer us interludes of connection, moments we should cherish.

Rabbi George Altshuler
Rabbi George Altshuler

Rabbi George Altshuler is the assistant rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, where he grew up. In 2012 and 2013, he worked as a calendar editor and writer in J.’s newsroom.