The book of Numbers has another name in the Talmud…the book of complainers. It’s a pretty apt description since it isn’t long into this book before the Jewish people begin complaining. They’ve been in the desert a long time, wandering. The exciting miracles and sparks of inspiration have dimmed and are more in the past. They begin to think of Egypt and their memories aren’t exactly accurate. Instead of remembering the slavery and suffering or even the amazing way they were delivered from Egypt, they remember the food.
For me, I find comfort in the fact that even as the Jewish people began to complain and really not live up to their potential, Hashem didn’t give up on them. Their entry to Israel was delayed, but the promise was still kept if even to their children. To me, this speaks of the commitment Hashem has to his people, never giving up on them. I find this a great comfort when I’m far less than perfect myself.
It may seem odd to us in a time when Hashem’s presence is hidden, but to me the problem the Jewish people face in the book of Numbers is that they just keep forgetting their “why.” A friend of mine recently was coaching a group on weight loss. She had every participant first begin with an exercise of trying to really dig into their “why” for wanting to lose weight. The entire first week of her coaching involved no exercise, no dietary changes, just a lot of journaling and work to dig down into each person’s motivation for wanting to lose weight. Each person would come to her with an answer and she would encourage them, but also tell them to keep digging deeper. Her reasoning for this exercise and why it was so important as to need a whole week was that a person can only really overcome challenges when they are clear on their motivations for wanting to.
In my own life, this has been proven true time and time again. I once was a college student, majoring in Architecture in a very rigorous University program. This program was notorious for how difficult it was. It wasn’t uncommon to sleep very little, even going for as long as a week without sleep when projects were due. On top of that, critiques of projects were scathing and the physics classes required were mind boggling. In each class, half the students would change majors in the Sophomore year, known as “The Wall.” It was really hard and I struggled, but I made it all the way until halfway through my Senior year. Suddenly, I had a crisis of faith of sorts. I realized that while I very much enjoyed the study of architecture, I really wasn’t sure I would enjoy being an architect. The two things were very different and suddenly I was feeling more drawn toward making my part time job, working with computers, a career.
I’d lost my why.
I made it through the last half of my senior year to graduate with my degree, but it was so much harder than any of the previous years, even “The Wall.” Without the clear motivation I’d had before, I simply couldn’t find the same commitment to my studies. The spies who brought back false reports had lost faith in the concrete idea that Hashem would provide a way for them to occupy the land. I’d lost faith in a concrete idea of myself as an Architect. Suddenly the things I’d suffered through with a good attitude brought me down. I complained. I was a dark cloud in the studio and my friends found it hard to hang out with me because I made it harder for them to stay positive.
I really believe that’s the reason why, if you approach Rabbi’s interested in conversion, the most often asked question is “Why do you want to convert?” On the surface, this seems an obvious question that should have an obvious answer, but I think there is a reason why I’ve often felt that no matter what I answered, my answer was somehow lacking. Like my friend the health coach, the Rabbis are hoping this is a question that you will really dig deeply into…and then dig some more. There are big obstacles in every conversion, like any other transformative process and without a solid “why” to help strengthen a conversion candidate, it isn’t long before faith is lost.
My “why” for conversion has shifted and changed over the years as I have grown and changed. There was even a time I did lose my why and it took wandering in the woods for a couple of years to find it again. Still, it’s having that reason clear in my own mind that makes it easier to keep moving forward.
Conversion candidates or not, we each have our long journeys in our spiritual deserts. My Mother in law right now is walking through her own. She is struggling with a difficult job that has long hours and is stressful that is stealing her joy along with having moved to a new Jewish community that she and her husband don’t quite fit into. Her why’s, though, remain intact and while it still isn’t easy, that seems to be what keeps her still connected to Hashem and still working hard at her job even as she davens for new opportunities.
It’s the why that makes struggle worthwhile, even noble and helps effort feel attached to a greater purpose.
The Jews had seen and heard Hashem himself at Mt. Sinai. They had witnessed miracles with their own eyes and yet even they somehow lost their why, the reason behind all their wandering, that desire for a relationship with Hashem. Yet, he never lost the why behind His connection to them.
Every time I feel lost and I’m struggling to find my why, I find that thought a great comfort. Hashem never loses his and he’s always waiting for me to come back to mine.