Friday, December 30, 2011

In The Wilderness

The Book of Numbers is the fourth book of the Torah and it covers 37 years and 9 months out of the 40 years desert experience. While the book is called “Numbers” in English, its Hebrew name BeMidbar means “in the desert” or “in the wilderness.” The desert or wilderness period of our people’s history was a period of transition. God realized that the generation which was raised in slavery was not yet ready to live the life of an independent nation.

It is interesting to note that in the Torah, God learns. He changes his mind twice in the story of Noah and the Flood. First, he regrets having created humanity and brings the flood; then after the flood, he realizes that there is nothing which can be done to change human nature and promises not to destroy humanity a second time.  After the sin of the Golden Calf, God realizes that he should have given the Israelites more concrete rituals to follow so he institutes the sacrificial system. After the incident of the spies, wherein the people become disheartened about their ability to conquer the Promised Land, he realizes that the people are not yet ready to enter it. It’s a legitimate question how an omniscient God needs to learn or is capable of doing so, but the Torah is not a Greek philosophical treatise and the Torah clearly has no problem with God learning.

One of the things we discussed last year as part of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship is the culture of Jewish institutions. Jewish institutions, deservedly or not, have a reputation for being slow to change. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman once wrote that most synagogues have the saying “Know Before Whom You Stand” written over their Ark, but they really should write “We Have Always Done It This Way.” 

Companies and institutions which thrive tend to be those which encourage experimentation. Companies which punish their employees for failed experiments create a culture which discourages innovation. For every successful idea there are going to be many that don’t pan out well. Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote a very interesting article in the New Yorker on the historic relationship between  Xerox and Apple. Xerox actually invented the personal computer, the laser printer, and the computer mouse; but because they didn’t fit into what they perceived as their business model, they never perfected them to the point where they could become mass market consumer products.

In the Conservative movement and perhaps beyond, we are at the point I think where we know what doesn’t work. The synagogue that was an ethnic club, or the child-focused suburban congregation that was fueled by Hebrew school, Bar and Bat Mitzvah and youth group -- these models are no longer viable.We don’t yet know what will work and part of that is the fact that there is no consensus on what we want to be working towards. We are in a wilderness period. But the lesson of the Book of Numbers is that this is a necessary period that cannot be skipped. We need time to figure out what our next iteration will be; but we also need to be brave enough to try things out, to be experimental, and not create a culture which chokes off creativy.

Michael Walzer ends his seminal book “Exodus and Revolution” with what he calls three truths about Exodus politics. One, wherever you are, it is probably Egypt. Two, the Promised Land does exist. Three, the only way to get there is by marching together through the wilderness; there are no shortcuts.

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