Toward Shabbat: Shelah Lekha

In his best-known work, The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides puzzles over an often-overlooked moment in this week’s parashah1. After both the episode of the spies and Moses’ subsequent appeal to God’s mercy, a series of verses in Numbers 15 detail requirements for korbanot, the sacrifices offered after the Israelites enter the Land of Israel. Among these requirements are the bringing of a wine offering, and it is this condition that troubles Maimonides2. Wine, in his Aristotelian understanding, carries with it an association of pagan offering. Why, then, might it be brought as a way to draw close to the God of Israel?

The question is resolved with a platonic appeal to the senses—each part of ourselves, Maimonides suggests, reaches out to God with whatever it loves most. Our own hunger, he teaches, once sought to offer meat through sacrifice, and our inner vibrancy reaches out to God through wine. But it is the mind and the soul, says the Rambam, that desire to offer up music to the Divine.

Reading this teaching in anticipation of my last few weeks as a rabbinic fellow at B’nai Jeshurun, I felt my own neshamah swell in recognition of this deep truth. The music of Jewish prayer was one of the deep elements that first drew me towards Judaism—even if I could not yet understand the words of the prayers, the melodies of tefillah expressed the same yearning that Maimonides speaks of in the Guide. This kind of sacred expression taught me how to reach out to the Makom, the Source of blessing, song sneaking into my soul and expressing the yearning I could previously not name and allowing me to enter into the millennia-spanning dialogue between the Jewish people and God.

This same kind of dialogue animates both our sacred community and our personal spiritual growth. I came to the BJ on the heels of a transformational year in Jerusalem, inspired by this community’s commitment to deep prayer and engagement in a heart-opening model of Jewish social justice. I had an idea of the rabbi I someday wanted to be, but I was desperately unsure of how to grow into becoming her. Two years of sacred dialogue, however—through davening, studying, listening, and teaching in this community—has supported a kind of growth I could not have imagined a few years ago, when I submitted a fellowship application from my apartment in Nahlaot.

I am so grateful for the relationships fostered by this community that has taught me that a shul does not stop at the sanctuary walls but instead spills out into our homes, our neighborhoods, and our city. In recent months, we’ve expanded this circle of care even farther, stretching over the internet to stay proximate in holy community. The sacred moments I’ve been privileged to share with so many BJ members over the past two years have been punctuated by shared song: dancing at Kabbalat Shabbat, diving into qawwal-inflected chant at Sukkot, learning “Kum-lei-lei” on trips with our middle schoolers and teens. Whether humming along to fireside folk songs on the women’s retreat, clapping along together at the Shabbat table, or even echoing in a Zoom call, the melody ultimately seems to resonate with the chorus of energy on Simhat Torah: Ana Adonai aneinu, b’yom koreinu—Answer us, God, on the day that we call. May this be our prayer together this Shabbat, and perhaps our blessing, too—to answer one another in resonance with Divine response.

1. Numbers 15:5-11
2. Guide for the Perplexed, part 3, chapter 46

Written By Margo Hughes-Robinson

Margo Hughes-Robinson is a fifth-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.