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Numbers 8:1-12:16

I know many people who talk as if their lives are dictated by divine forces beyond their control.  Sometimes it comes out in the form of “You know rabbi, I believe that everything happens for a reason.” Sometimes it is as direct as believing that no matter what happens, “It’s God’s will.”

I know lots of people who find comfort in the idea that everything is fated to happen as part of some great divine plan.  I hear it expressed often when faced with the death of loved ones, and especially when that death involves someone young and undeserving whose death is clearly a tragedy.

Our minds rebel against the seeming randomness of life – the innocent child killed by a drunk driver; the young parent cut down by a raging cancer; the teenager accidentally killed in a drive-by shooting from stray bullets not even meant for him.

Even the youngest of children know how to spontaneously cry, “It’s not fair” and rail at the seeming randomness and apparent injustice of life. Children want things to be fair and equal and in balance.  And so do adults.

My life as a rabbi has allowed me the sad privilege of all too often holding the hands of bereaved parents at the funerals of their children and listening as they rail against the injustice and cruelty of life.  We all know the tragic reality that in America now there are more mass shootings than are days in the year.

After the latest shooting of yet more innocents, one parent simply said, “The world is a cruel, horrible, ugly, painful nightmare,” “Maybe someday I will understand how this all fits into some giant cosmic plan, but right now it just hurts more than I could have possibly believed any pain could.  And I can’t believe in any God who could allow something so heartless and cruel.”

In this week’s Torah portion it describes the famous cloud that hung over the Tabernacle in the wilderness.  It was a cloud by day and a fire by night, and as long as it hovered over the people they stayed encamped in one place. The minute it moved, they moved with it.  Whether it was one day, a month or a year, it was on the signal of the cloud by day as it lifted and moved on that the people simply followed.

The cloud was as divine sign of the fact that God and not they were in charge of their wanderings and their lives.  The Torah says, “By the mouth of Adonai they made camp and by the mouth of Adonai they broke camp.”  The story in the Torah makes it clear that their spiritual journey was not really in their hands, but the hands and mouth of God.  I suspect that we all long for such an experience - the certainty that comes with hearing the voice of God, seeing that cloud by day and that fire by night.  Everyone wants to believe that there is a meaning in life beyond the physical that lives on when the body dies.

In the end each of us has to search in our own unique ways to find our cloud and our fire.  Perhaps it is as simple as the teaching in Proverbs - ner Adonai nishmat adam – “The soul of every human being is the light of God.”

As Jews we gather several times throughout the year for a yizkor memorial service in memory and honor of our loved ones who have died. When we do, as with the anniversary of the deaths of those we love it is our tradition to light a memorial candle in their memory.  Yet ultimately we know that the most important memorial candle that we can light is the light of their memory that continues to live within us.  Perhaps the purity and goodness of the sweet souls of those we love in our lives and the love they gave to us as parents, or grandparents, siblings or friends or children is all the meaning we can hope to find in life.  And perhaps in the end that will have to be enough.


Tue, June 6 2023 17 Sivan 5783