Through the long summer Shabbatot of June, we wander in the desert with the Children of Israel in Bamidbar. We read with dismay as they complain and discount God's protection. They fail as a faithful people at every turn.
Rabbinic commentators suggest that God preordained the fate of the slave generation long before they left Egypt. According to God's immutable plan, this first generation had no choice but to behave as they did and be punished as they were.
Such an explanation does not sit easily with us because we know that God gave us free will. How could these narratives teach that we are mere puppets? Rabbinic commentary teaches that the opposite explanation is also feasible: God did not preordain this people's destiny. Israel had forty years to prove themselves. The slave generation had an opportunity, they could have altered their fate, but they failed.
Both explanations—that we are pawns in God's plan and that we have free will but fail—cause us to reflect on God's role in our lives today. Sometimes we acknowledge that God is guiding us. Joyous and sorrowful events happen, challenges are met or overwhelm us, loved ones are protected or not. It can be a relief to consider that God is in charge. "God has a plan," we say, seeking comfort in our faith.
At other times, we take the initiative. Decisions are ours to make. Who we are and what we do is all that matters. We are grateful for the gift of free will that has made us little less than angels as we do God's work here on earth.
The lesson of the desert wanderings does not have to be an either-or response. Torah is far more sophisticated than that. The Torah comes to teach us a both-and response. In the desert wanderings of our lives, sometimes God directs us and at other times, we direct ourselves. There is no easy answer. There is only our sacred task to find our balance as we live in the middle.
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