The Israelites who escaped Mitzrayim (a place of constriction) did not reach their destination for forty years. Instead, they entered the wilderness of the desert (BaMdbar, related to d-b-r root for “to speak”). They left a narrow place where they were bound to the wills of their human masters and were forced to suppress their voices into silent groans. And they entered into the expansive, open space of wild nature, infinite sky, and a deeper knowing of God.
I imagine that the desert was not a comforting place. There were no nooks and crannies in which to hide from predators. There were no tree canopies under which to find shelter from the elements. Traversing the desert must have made them feel exposed and deeply vulnerable.
Yet it is in the desert that the Israelites rediscovered their voice and found new ways of connecting to one another and to God. It is in the open field of their wanderings that God gave them the words with which to lift each other up through blessing: “May God bless you and protect you. May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May God’s face rise toward you and grant you peace.” (Numbers 6:23-27)
Practical Mindfulness Application
Unlike the choice many of us make to be silent as a spiritual practice, sometimes being silent is a byproduct of grief or confusion. It is not uncommon for us to lose the ability to articulate or make sense of our experience when we are deeply upset or frightened. Sometimes, when we find ourselves in the wilderness of vulnerability, it is helpful to turn toward practices that help us feel more anchored and connected.
When you become anxious and upset, take a moment to feel all four corners of your feet, allowing yourself to be rooted in the earth, moving your attention away from the whirlwind of thoughts and into the body.
Once grounded, begin to pay attention to the spaces around you, not so much the objects that fill the room, but the spaces between objects. Finally, lift up your face and look up, focusing on what it feels like to be inside your face. Imagine that your face is a gateway for connection with God, however you experience the divine.
One of the skills I learned from my non-Jewish colleagues who are more comfortable with spontaneous prayer, is to take the emotional temperature of the moment and transform it into words, thus acknowledging what is often left unsaid. The idea is that once you name your emotions or what is going on in the moment, you reduce its charge. We call it, lifting up words and giving language to those parts of ourselves that have become speechless.
The name of this week’s parsha, Nasso, is usually translated as “counting” or “taking censes.” But the root for Nasso can also be translated as “lifting up.” In the context of the narrative, we could see that the counting of each individual was also an elevation of their worth. We see this word “lift up” come up again later in the parsha in the blessing “May God’s face rise toward you.”
Try using this blessing as a mantra in moments of difficulty as you lift up your face, lift up your words, and lift up your blessings.