We are living in unsettled times. We know it has happened before, and that it will happen again, but it always feels more intense when we are in the middle of a communal or personal upheaval.
Our Torah portion this week is about one such time. Weird things are happening, as the Jews who have wandered the desert now prepare to enter the promised land. (Parasha Pinchas, Numbers 25:10 to 30:1)
Aside from the action in the story there is a thread that runs through the Torah portion of young people taking on the mantle of adulthood. It begins with Eleazer stepping into his father’s shoes, standing beside Moses to lead the people just as his father Aaron did. We meet five women whose father Zelophehad died in the desert. Because they have no brothers and only sons can inherit, they ask God to change the laws that had been given earlier, and God agreed that they deserved to inherit.
We learn that Korach’s sons did not die along with their father and the rebels, that somehow they managed to escape the grim fate of the others. And because they lived, in later generations they became custodians of the tabernacle, and eleven Psalms are attributed to them.
We see Joshua step forward as Moses’ successor. And very briefly, we meet Serah, the mysterious woman who first appears in Genesis, traveling to Egypt with her grandfather Jacob, and who inexplicably reappears now, hundreds of years later, perhaps taking her own small role in yet another shift from one reality to another.
This evening I am sitting on a beach, laptop on my knees, with the sun setting behind me. Waves are rolling in, each one noisy and dramatic until it fades and then disappears. They continue to grow and diminish, row after row. The movement is restless, relentless.
And yet science tells us that the water is not actually moving, at least not as much as it seems. The action of the waves is caused by wind, and the water acts as a medium for the wind’s energy to move through. In other words, while the waves seem to be finite, the water remains constant.
Which brings me back to the Torah. This week we read about waves of energy, waves of change, rippling through the community as they prepare to leave the desert and enter a new reality. Leadership is changing hands, laws are changing to accommodate the needs of women, the sons of a rebel get a chance at redemption, and Moses steps back after forty years of leadership.
Endings and beginnings tumble one after the other, like the waves before me. As the sun sinks, I find myself praying that what seems tumultuous is only on the surface; that the truth of living in unsettling times is the truth of the ocean waves, that the water is constant, strong and steady, able to withstand the forces of the wind.