The Torah of James Taylor


Rabbi Corey Helfand

This week’s Torah portion is Beha’alotecha, Numbers 8:1-12:16.

In 1968, James Taylor wrote one of my favorite songs. “Fire and Rain” was a song that I listened to in the car with my parents and sang every summer around the fire at camp. Taylor has explained that the song was about himself as well as about friends who suffered from depression and other mental health problems, addiction and isolation.

For our ancestors in Parshat Be’ha’alotecha, there was fire and a cloud, although no rain. We find them at the beginning of their wandering through the wilderness (bemidbar), hot during the day, cold at night, a place where they were susceptible to attack.

The wilderness ― or wherever we wander on our journey ― is also a place where our faith can be called into question and a time when we are searching, even yearning, for God to be with us and to protect us.

The Torah tells us that “on the day that the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the Tent of the Pact, and in the evening it rested over the Tabernacle in the likeness of fire until morning. It was always so: the cloud covered it, appearing as fire by night. And whenever the cloud lifted from the tent, the Israelites would set out, and at the spot where the cloud settled, there the Israelites camped… On a sign from the Lord they made camp and on a sign from the Lord they broke camp” (Numbers 9: 15-17, 23).

It seems as though the cloud and fire functioned as signs for when the Israelites should begin and end their journey. More powerfully, though, they served as an eternal sign that God was present with them throughout their travels, protecting them from harm’s way, shading them from the hot sun during the day and warming them during the cold desert nights.

In his commentary on the Torah, Nachmanides (Ramban, 13th century Spain) explains that the function of the cloud and the fire was God’s way of demonstrating divine love for the Jewish people. Ramban teaches that God wanted the people to feel God’s mercy no matter what they faced on their difficult journey. And while a piece of the protection was from the natural world, it was also a sign of reassurance in those moments when a person’s faith is challenged. Even if we couldn’t see God, feeling God’s omnipresence helped us feel a little less alone.

Today, experiencing God’s presence is often a struggle. For some, the notion that God watches over us is a wonderful way of experiencing God in our midst. Others need something more tangible: being surrounded by family, friends, or community in moments when we need them the most, guiding us through the days or holding us at night. Or perhaps, simply put, we hold on to our faith.

I admit that there are times when I question God’s existence in the world. I’m sure we all do, especially when it feels like we’re wandering aimlessly. Yet, if I pause and look hard enough, I can usually experience God’s presence even if just for a moment in nature, within, or as part of community. And in times when the clouds and fire are seemingly absent, in those lonely times, let us work toward emulating God, helping support and guide others, in their time of wandering, as James Taylor put it, “one more time again.” ■

Rabbi Corey Helfand is rabbi of Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase.

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