When I was a child, one of my earliest memories was of being isolated on a boiled sheet that had been laid over wall-to-wall gold shag carpeting in the middle of our ranch house living-room in El Toro, California. I did have my brother with me, but the world at large was off limits. We were infected. We, for a brief time, were sporting pulsing blemishes that itched to no end and, with our infantile perspective, had no end in sight. We were told at the time by our most trusted confidant, our mother, that we had the Chicken Pox… We were infected. My brother and I were isolated from all that we knew and our trusted mother had become our jailer.
I remember her trying to change the sheet, yelling at us to move all of our toys, our precious building blocks, to the side, off the edge of the sheet. She was obviously flustered and expressing it with uncertain abandon. I was just confused. I mean, if we put the blocks on the carpet, how could we put them back onto the clean boiled sheet? How could we even stand on the carpet and then get back on the sheet, anyways? I can still smell the wonderfully clean and freshly boiled sheet, as it unfurled beneath our future prison cell. I remember being upset that I had to rebuild the building block town that I had just destroyed before our daily cell-change. We had to live on the boiled sheet for a week, just me and my little brother, with our lurking mother appearing occasionally to verify the proximity of our confinement. That wall-to-wall gold shag carpet might as well have been a sea of seething hot lava from my perspective, itchy and isolated from the world while floating on my boiled sheet desert island for what seemed like an eternity.
Eternity sure seems like a long time when you are a kid. As you get older, life just speeds up. Looking back on it, I find that no matter how I tried to make sense of the world, it always eluded me. I learned to meditate, to do Tai Chi, to understand philosophical leanings, to surf the Pacific Ocean, to ride deep, Colorado Rockies' powder in the outback of the local poach-run on my snowboard, and even to pray, eat, and work at the local Hare Krishna temple as a wee lad. I learned, over the period of many years, to tap into the cosmos and draw the creative, raw energy that resides there and to manifest it here, in this world, with paint, wood, clay, sound, commix, and ideas. I traveled to the top of mountains to blow a shofar at the gales of time and watch eagles feathers twitch at close range, as they both swirled upward and beyond earthly knowledge. Through all of this, believe it or not, I could never figure out how that friggin hot lava didn't burn my feet off. I couldn't figure out how our jailer could walk on it and we couldn't. Maybe that is why I am still searching for meaning? Who knows…
In this week's parsha, Bamidbar— meaning "In the Desert" (Numbers 1:1-4:20), we are all thrust into a realm of death. In the desert there are snakes, scorpions, dangers galore, and most importantly, the desert lacks water, the essential element of life in this world. Water is a strange thing in the universe, we learn. Water is the only known substance that expands when it is frozen. It is also the only known substance that can exist as a gas, a liquid, and as a solid. We learn that water is life and therefore that life is unique and unusual when it comes to the vastness of it all. We learn that when we go into the desert, we have to trust much more so in our faith, tapping it as a resource for growth and movement. In the desert, the concept of God develops into much more of a reality, as if the lack of water (read life) is only a kind of weaning from physicality in order to expose the truth of the world, to open our eyes to the Creator and to ultimate meaning.
It seems that not a lot has changed, even with the years having sped under the horizon. My beloved jailer is gone now, maybe buried, maybe not. Actually, the report that we heard was that she was cremated against her will. Well, regardless of the tragic circumstances, it appears that our beloved jailer has departed from this world and has entered the next realm in order to wait for the inevitable sheet to be pulled from beneath her. Looking back on our isolation on the boiled sheet, I have to laugh a little. You see, we didn't even have the Chicken Pox. Those red itchy bumps were, after all, only flea bites from the critters that lived in the desert of the gold wall-to-wall shag carpeting. At the end of the week, someone noticed the little black dots that were jumping around. As it turned out, the carpet 'was' actually the desert, full of snakes and scorpions and not the other way around. That, thinking about it now, maybe is what life is all about anyways. The reality that we perceive around us is the 'real' void, while the scary, 'unknown' void on the other side is the desert, the place of real wonder, real connection with the Creator, real purpose, and real life.
Shavuot is coming… The Torah is coming… the truth is coming!
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sumeach le kulam!