My Poppa, Sam Fox, always had a smile on his face. Those ridges of his face, marked over the years by his constant joyful expression. That was him, he was a man we all loved and looked up to. Took a job when he was still in grade school, sweeping up in a local barber shop, to help bring in money for the family after his father’s untimely death, and at UCLA he worked three jobs and was the only member of the tennis team allowed to skip practice. Poppa started every day with warm oatmeal, raisins and a banana and joked that coffee ice cream was healthy because it was brown. I loved my Poppa. I still do. Which is why is was so hard to watch him decline in his later years. My Poppa developed dementia and while at first he was really good at hiding it, eventually he stopped recognizing his grandchildren. He could keep a general sense of style even at that point, without knowing that he was talking to his grandson he always treated me with inspiring kindness, his instinct to offer love. Much of that changed by the time he stopped recognizing his own sons. I never heard him say an unkind word to anyone, but he would go through small bouts of confusion completely unaware of where he was, or who he was. I can remember those times so clearly. He would get this look on his face of sudden concern. Gently, he would look around trying to place himself, eyes traveling from face to face until, and he always made it, he saw my Nanna. There was no mistaking the love my Poppa had for my Nanna. And he got to fall in love with her again and again, day after day. Lost in his world for a moment, until the love of his life brought him right back to where he was sitting, right back home. And then he would turn to me and say, “that’s my girl, isn’t she a beauty.”
My memories of those moments with my Poppa, the searching and then finding himself, came back to me this week as I read over our Torah portion, Bamidbar. Bamidbar, literally “in the wilderness.” I can imagine the Israelites, long after they have left the land of Egypt. The daily routines of their travels an accepted reality. They know they are on their way to somewhere, but the promise of a home, somewhere past the peaked lines of the dune ridden horizon is distant at best, even dubious. 40 years is a long time to travel in the desert. And so when we reach for the text for this week, titled “in the wilderness,” The text that describes what happened when our ancestors were lost along their journey, we come across a flurry of Hebrew names. Not plot driving actions or moralistic mitzvot meant to challenge and guide us / names. When our ancestors told the story of what it means to be stuck, to travel and toil and reach a point where you are caught in the middle of the wilderness, and when they want describe how they found home there, to bring them out of the chaotic mess of dwelling temporarily in their night camps, and trudging forward upon daybreak, they tell about who they were with. A census of the Israelites that gave dry sand the water of their companionship, gave people a place to call home in the wilderness.
I just got back on Monday night from the wilderness of New York City. It was surprising to me how familiar the streets of Brooklyn felt the moment I placed my feet back on them. Walking to the subway I couldn’t help but notice what stores and restaurants remained, which ones changed. The big Key Foods on 5th avenue was still there, and the popular local vegan restaurant, and my favorite Park Slope ramen place with the Japanese cartoons on the walls and the long formica bar that ran alongside the kitchen. But as soon as I stepped out into the humid city air I couldn’t shake the corollary feeling of homelessness. Every New Yorker is an anonymous wanderer on their commute. Even on familiar sidewalks, concrete I buffered myself with countless steps, I felt lost. People in New York don’t use cars to get around like we do here in Indy. There’s no trunk to schlep our cargo, no seats to buckle in our passengers. You only have what you can carry on your back, and the steel and windows of the car body are replaced with the rough, tough skin of the city dweller. As I passed others on their way to or from anywhere, they and I remained a vacant image of a person. Callused to concrete and blended into the sidewalks. And we remained this way until we returned to our apartments, / or until we ran into someone we knew. Then we would open up. Hard edged grimaces turned to bright wide smiles as we embraced a friend we had not seen in weeks. Cheeks rosy with the lifeblood now restored to our soul by the company of our friend or family member. People bring us back to life, traveling in that space of in between, our loved ones create a small place to be ourselves along the way. After wandering in the urban desert, a taste of home.
I recently reread a story about a woman who was deeply involved in her temple. Every week she went to classes, rarely missed an event, a holiday, a shabbat, and out then of the blue, she submitted her resignation letter to the synagogue. Understandably surprised, and concerned that something had happened that had hurt her, the rabbi of the synagogue called this woman. She asked this woman if everything was ok and the reply was that she was doing just fine. “Were you hurt by something that took place in the community?” the rabbi asked. “No,” came the answer. “Then what would cause you to withdraw from the synagogue?” She responded, “you know rabbi, for years I came to every event at the temple, I went to all the classes, and I prayed almost every Shabbat in our sanctuary. And not once, in all the time I spent time in our building did I ever meet anybody.”
I am always humbled by this story. Here is a perfect example of someone being caught in the wilderness. In our communities we have the incredible potential to be a holy space, a place of learning and prayer, but none of that matters if we are not first a place where we come together. It is so easy to get caught up in the details of programs and initiatives, and forget to look around the room and meet who is there. I know that I miss opportunities all of the time because I didn’t simply shake someone’s hand, open my heart to them, and say “tell me about yourself.” Wilderness grows from neglect.
So I am asking all of us to reach outside ourselves, to look for that person in the room who is in the wilderness, alone, and meet them. To introduce ourselves, we are that home, that place in our world filled with the love of each other, that welcoming place, warm and with our door open, that we all travel to.
And this welcoming extends further. We are a community that welcomes everyone, and insist on the equal rights for everyone in our community. Tomorrow night we will celebrate the receiving of our Torah with the holiday of Shavuot. And as a part of our celebration of receiving the Torah, our inspiration for understanding that every person is created in the image of God, we will be marching tomorrow morning in the Indy Pride parade. Come at 8:30am for a short prayerful experience, and join us as we celebrate every member of our community.
We do such an amazing job of this. I love hearing from members of our community how much they love being here. I love it too! I encourage us to celebrate what makes this such an amazing and beautiful community, that we are a place where when we come to events, when we celebrate holidays, we do meet one another, we connect. Because we know that when we make our way along the path of our lives, and feel lost, find ourselves in the wilderness, that we can find the faces of those that we love right here, and every time we walk through these doors know that we are are where we’ve always been, we are home.