Parashat Chukat 5782
Over the last several months, the Creative Beit Midrash, a group of folks here at Hevreh who meet on Shabbat mornings, have been exploring the topic of journeying. From the moment one hears the call to Lech L’cha, to get up and go, through the wilderness wandering, until we meet our end, the Creative Beit Midrash has been considering what happens at each stage along an individual’s sacred pilgrimage.
In the last two sessions, we have been focusing on the meaning of the Middle. For some of us, like myself, we are at the beginning of the Middle. For others, the Middle maybe more of our past. Or perhaps it is a target that continues to shift, more like beach sand as the tides change. So tonight, I share with you an imperfect meditation on what it means to travel through that Middling Place.
To begin, let’s remember the game Monkey-in-the-Middle. Kids out on a playground grab a kick ball and yell, “Keep away!” Two other kids come over. One goes between the others. That child is the monkey-in-the-middle. As they toss the ball over his head, he jumps around—more like flails about—trying to catch it. The monkey wins when he finally grabs the ball out of the air.
I never did well being the monkey-in-the-middle. The game feels designed to make the middle kid feel foolish. I always wanted to be the one throwing the ball, to play the offensive rather than being forced into the defensive spot. Just as one should strive to never sit in a middle seat on a Southwest flight, or for that person who abhors Wednesdays, being the monkey-in-the middle would be, simply, the worst. If you have a strong preference for the crispy edge piece of kuggle, perhaps you relate.
Because the Middle is nowhere, neither here nor there, it’s Act II, neither the opening chapter nor the story’s conclusion. It is the mushy middle piece.
This year, I celebrated an almost-milestone birthday. In one more year, I may be considered over-the-hill. I have begun my middle game. Though as life expectancy is extended out more and more, that is a moving target. At my annual physical this year, my doctor laughed, “Congratulations, you’re officially a middle-aged, American male. Welcome to being normal.” She said that because I’m just like everyone else with rising cholesterol numbers and rising blood pressure.
We speak of the Middle potentially as something negative: the crest of the hill, when things start to roll downhill. The Middle could be when we get stuck in the mud, or sit around just waiting.
Being in the Middle is hanging out in the Waiting Place. And here, Dr. Seuss puts it best in Oh the Places You’ll Go. The Middle is the place
… For people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
Or a bus to come, or a plane to go
Or the mail to come, or the rain to go
Or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
Or waiting around for a Yes or No
Or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
And as we wait, we have to wonder: For what are we waiting?
Dr. Seuss saves us from the fear of being stuck in a void, without direction. “No!” He writes, “That’s not for you!” The Middle is not a place to be feared. Revel in the Middle. Catch the ball. Run the offensive play. Go for it.
The game of chess is a good example of how we can transform our experience of the Middle from dreading loss and stagnation into pure, unabashed opportunity. The Queen’s Gambit—while about many things—displayed this well. We divide a chess match into three stages: The opening, the middle game, and the end game. Yes, how you open and close matters, but the middle game is the main stage. It is where strategy and tactics, the myriad possibilities, play out. The Middle is where we show our skill, creativity, and eventually mastery of our craft. We may still be learning, but we have mastered the fundamentals, and we are far from done yet. Yes, making moves is not without risk, though the middle game in chess is to be approached as the embrace of what is possible.
Many of the games we play model how we move through the Middle. Recently, I was playing golf with a congregant who had just turned 88 years old. He’s in great health for his age, and still plays several days a week. He was a scratch golfer when he was younger, but laments that he can’t hit the ball as far as he used to. Not only that but he’s moved up to the forward tees, the “senior tees.” He loathed calling them that. Still, he modeled beautifully the embrace of what’s possible. We both played well the day we went out together. But, he won the round, and scored his age: An 88. A more than respectable score for a recreational player.
Before he would take a shot, I noticed how he played. He’d look at where the ball was, evaluate the shot, and then say out loud to himself, “Oh, I can do that.” And then he would. There was no self-doubt, no lack of confidence. He wasn’t being cocky. He was playing offensively. From beginning to middle to end, he was using his skill to put himself in the best position possible.
A story is told of a man running through a forest. The path before him is well-worn, easy to follow. Until suddenly, he emerges out into a meadow. The clearing has grown in with tall grass and wildflowers. The path has disappeared. The man panics, unable to move. As he takes his first steps into the meadow, the grass flattens under his foot, and he realizes that he is safe to define the path before him. He can go in any way he chooses.
That meadow is a beautiful opportunity of the Middle. That meadow is also the Israelites’ wilderness.
This week’s Torah portion is Chukat, the middle of the Book of Numbers, where we read all about the forty years of the Israelites’ wandering through the dessert. Recall that God could have taken them the quick way, but decided not to.1 If they had gone the short route, the Israelites would definitely have turned back because it would have been too easy. The Middle would have been without any sacred striving. The Middle would not have provided for the spiritual transformation the Israelites experienced.
Sure, the Israelites gripe plenty while they’re stuck in the Middle. Throughout the Book of Numbers, the Israelites kvetch, and God mutters to no one in particular like a parent caught with a whining kid in the back seat.2 As someone who spends a lot of time driving his children around, hearing them ask the classic “Are we there yet?”, feeling my agitation rise, and secretly agreeing that I wish I were there too, to be out of the car, I find comfort in the idea that from time to time, we all are stuck being the monkey-in-the-middle. Even God.
Yet, God too channels Dr. Seuss, “No! That’s not for you!” And turns the Israelites’ Middle into a blessing. The Israelites receive Torah in the wilderness. They eat manna and receive blessings. They develop in the wilderness a powerful and intimate relationship with God, who guides them along their way as a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire. There are upsides to spending forty-years in the Middle. There are reasons to delight in the Middle.
Resting here, in the Middle, is certainly not without risk or dread. Still, there is much to enjoy at this point of the sacred pilgrimage. For those of us who have traveled through Middle stages already, I wonder what the experience was like for you? How would you describe the ups and downs of it? When was there heartache, and where was their growth? And in what and with whom did you discover blessings in the Middle? Or, does the idea of the Middle seem more like a constantly ephemeral in-between that you have not left quite yet?
From our beginning, through the Middle, and right until the end, we have the opportunity to wrestle blessings. The Psalmist prays, “Teach us to number our days, that we may obtain a heart of wisdom.”3 In counting our days, and in traveling through them, may we each find blessings—blessings in one another, blessings in our surroundings, and blessings in how we treat one another, and blessings in our deeds. May our coming and our going always be blessed, and may what happens in the Middle be nothing but sacred.
1 Exodus 13:17-18.
2 Numbers 14:27.
3 Psalm 90:12.