"In Praise of Wandering" by Daniel Libenson

jU Executive Director Dan Libenson gave the address this past Sunday, April 28th at Rockefeller Chapel. 

Entitled "In Praise of Wandering," Dan's speech touched on the importance of the omer itself, which is often overshadowed by the holidays that bookend it: Passover and Shavuot.

"Today is the 33rd of the 49 days between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot, known as the Festival of Weeks on the Jewish calendar because it takes place seven weeks after Passover, or as Pentecost on the Christian calendar because it takes place 50 days after Easter. 

In the times when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, the Jewish festivals were largely focused on the bringing of sacrifices to God and gifts to the priests based on the various crops that were being harvested at different times. Passover was the time of the barley harvest, and Shavuot celebrated the wheat harvest.

But in Rabbinic Judaism, when most Jews were no longer farmers and many lived outside of the Land of Israel, the major festivals were recast as re-enactments of different aspects of the Hebrew Bible’s major story—the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the journey to the Promised Land of Canaan. 

Passover, of course, is the re-enactment of the Exodus itself. In the reading from the Book of Exodus that we just heard, Moses says….“You shall tell your child…, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt….’” This commandment becomes the central tenet of the Rabbinic Passover, whose liturgy states that “in every generation, each person is obligated to see himself as though he personally was freed from Egypt.” Passover is not a commemoration of a long-ago historical event, but a ritual of transformation in which we ourselves become freed slaves, transforming the Exodus from history into memory. 

And the Rabbinic Shavuot, 50 days later, re-enacts the Giving of the Law at Sinai. It is traditionally observed by staying up all night to study the Bible in a re-enactment of the Israelites’ experience at the Holy Mountain.

The Rabbis believed that a people that thought of themselves as actually being freed slaves—as opposed to people who commemorated a historical event in which their ancestors were freed from slavery—would conduct themselves differently in the world: that they would be more likely to care for the weak in society and for the stranger in their midst. And a people that thought of themselves as actually having stood at Sinai at the Giving of the Law would take more care for the observance of that Law.

The days between Passover and Shavuot are known as the Omer, and each of its 49 days is counted and blessed during the daily prayer service. Each day brings us one day closer to the Covenant at Sinai, and these days are counted with great anticipation.

I want to suggest, however, that the Omer should be thought of not only as a period of waiting for Sinai, but as a re-enactment in its own right, a re-enactment of the Israelites’ initial introduction to life in the desert, in the wilderness: a re-enactment of the beginning of a journey that ended up lasting forty years.

It wasn’t supposed to have taken forty years to get from Egypt to Canaan. As the crow flies, the distance between modern Cairo and Jerusalem is about 250 miles. Even at a snail’s pace of one mile per day, with the Sabbath as a day of rest, the journey would have taken only one year; at a more realistic pace, perhaps it might have been expected to take a couple of months at the most.

The explanation, which we find in chapters 13 and 14 of the Book of Numbers, is that the Children of Israel lacked the faith—in themselves and in God—to believe that they would be able to overcome the giants who lived in the Land of Canaan. The team of scouts that Moses sent ahead came back reporting that “the land is a land that devours its inhabitants” and that the giants who lived there “viewed us as grasshoppers and,” most significantly, “we saw ourselves as grasshoppers.” Hearing this report, the Children of Israel became afraid and demanded to go back to Egypt.

The Bible tells us that God became enraged at the lack of faith shown by a people who, only a few weeks before, God had freed from 400 years of captivity through plagues, signs, and wonders, not least of which was the parting of the Red Sea! In Numbers chapter 14, God says to Moses: “not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness…will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors….Tell them…Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the wilderness.”

The desert is a miserable place. Throughout the Bible, the Israelites complain about being there, so much so that more than once they suggest that they were better off as slaves in Egypt and propose going back there. To wander aimlessly in the wilderness when you know that the Promised Land is so tantalizingly close is an extremely bitter punishment.

It is interesting to think about the traditional song of the Passover seder, Dayenu, which the choir sang so beautifully, in contrast with Martin Luther King’s famous words. Would it really have been enough if God had taken us out of Egypt but not parted the Red Sea for us, or not guarded us in the wilderness, or not given us manna to eat, or not given us the Torah? Would it really have been enough if God had just left us in the desert, leaving the work half-finished? Of course not. Isn’t Martin Luther King’s perspective more true: that we will not be satisfied and we can never be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream?

And yet I want to suggest instead that wandering in the desert is also a good thing, that when we count each day of the Omer, we should not only look backward with relief at our escape from Egypt, or forward with anticipation of the arrival at Sinai or at Canaan, but that we bless each day that we live in the desert as valuable in its own right.

To be in Egypt is to know that you are a slave. To be in Canaan is to know you are home. To be in the desert is to not know. 
And there is much to be said for not knowing.

This institution, the University, is an institution dedicated to not knowing. The University is often misunderstood by those who are not part of it. People think of the University as a place of knowing, where knowledge is passed on from generation to generation. And this is true, of course, as far as it goes: that is one function of the University. But the University is primarily a place of not knowing, a place of discovery. We call this discovery “research,” and it can be miserable…and a lot of fun.

What is fun about it? The hunt is fun. The openness is fun. There is great joy in letting one’s mind open expansively to a range of possibilities to explain this or that phenomenon. Once you know the answer, it’s kind of boring. I think of the book Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman, which purports to give us a sense of what might have been going through the mind of Albert Einstein as he considered all the possible ways in which time and space might work before he settled on the Theory of Special Relativity. I enjoyed this book much more than any physics class I ever took.

As any scientist knows, the process of discovery can be dark and depressing. A promising direction that turns out to be a blind alley. Grants rejected. Co-researchers who don’t carry their weight. Who hasn’t looked back to the past and wished for the comfort of some earlier time or looked forward with anticipation to publication or even to the awarding of a prize? But we also know that it is often more thrilling to work on a challenging problem than to solve it, whether that problem is scientific research, the development of new ideas in the humanities, or raising children.

Times of wandering can be fun, and they can be depressing. But they are often very, very important. Times of wandering are not generally entered into by choice, but rather they are thrust upon us because the stable situation that came before ended for one reason or another—perhaps because of a change in personal or communal circumstances, or because a new idea challenged an old way of thinking.

It might be nice if we could just jump from one stable state to another stable state, but the world generally doesn’t work that way, and this is the Bible’s story.

One of my favorite lines comes from the introduction to Leon Kass’s book on Genesis, where he says that the Bible’s stories “show[] us not so much what happened as what always happens.” And a desert period is what (almost) always happens when we leave any stable situation—good or bad.

I want to suggest that all of us today are living in a time of wandering. With an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the world around us and an accelerating pace of change brought on by the Industrial and Information Ages, perhaps we will never have stability again. And yet this is a time of incredible discoveries and new tools for living. Sometimes we can feel at sea because our wisdom about how to live a good life has not caught up to the changing circumstances of our lives.

But rather than yearning for an end to this period of instability, we should embrace the opportunity to be the shapers of something new. Perhaps it is enough that we have been brought here and left on our own.

It is a gift to live in a time of wandering. While we do not have the comfort of predictability and the psychological ease of living in a predictable world, we—especially we who live in a great American city and work in or near a great American University—have an opportunity to be shapers of the future in a way that is not available to people living in times of stability and that has not been available to the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived.

Is it exhausting? Yes. Disheartening? Yes. Frustrating? Yes. Disappointing? Yes. Might there be advantages to living in another kind of time? Many.

But we are blessed to live in these times. We have the opportunity to make discoveries that will change the world, and to seek wisdom about how to live a good life in a new age that we may leave as a legacy that might be of use for the next thousand years, just as our ancestors—Jewish and Christian—did in a previous time of wandering.

Whether or not it is enough—dayenu—for us to have been brought to this time of wandering and to know that we ourselves will probably not live to see a Promised Land of a new stable way of living, that is a question that we all must decide for ourselves.

Rabbi Tarfon, who lived in the second century, not long after the destruction of the Second Temple, which was most certainly a time of wandering—between one stable form of Judaism and another—famously states in the Ethics of the Fathers: “You do not need to complete the work, but you are not free to avoid it either.”

So, as we reflect on the period in between Passover and Shavuot, or Easter and Pentecost, let us take seriously the re-enactment of the experience of the Hebrews wandering in the desert, and let us think of it not as a punishment but as a great gift.

It is traditional during the Counting of the Omer to publicly count the days, in re-enactment of the anticipation and excitement about the giving of the Torah at the end of the period, but let us also count the Omer in an embrace of the present:

Blessed are you, Adonai, our God, ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to count the Omer. 

Today is the 33rd day, corresponding to four weeks and five days, of the Omer. 

May God bless you and keep you safe. May God shine the light of His face upon you and be gracious to you. May God turn His face toward you and grant you peace. Amen. 

And I would add: May we all have the wisdom to embrace our time wandering in the desert and to use this time of discovery to discover who we are and what legacy we have been privileged to leave."