The Circle Game
Parashat Bamidbar 5777
Delivered as a part of Shabbat evening services, Friday, May 26, 2017.
“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose,” writes Kohelet, or
more familiar to many, so sang the Byrds. Here we are, Memorial Day weekend: that time when Spring bleeds into Summer. For some, we have found delight in these last few weeks, sowing seeds into our vegetable gardens, starting lawn work again, planti- ng annuals, and savoring the variety of perennials as they bloom. The goldfinches are gold, the cardinals are eating at our feeders, and for some the bears hunt through our compost bins for treasure. This season begs for bucolic poetry: “A belt of straw and ivy buds, / With coral clasps and amber studs: / And if these pleasures may thee move, / Come live with me, and be my love.”
Spring writes its own poetry.
In the Berkshires, Spring can linger into early June. And more and more, Summer bleeds into Spring: many have already returned from Winter travel, the cultural and arts calendars are out, social dates and dinners are scheduled, the stages around our community are set, much of what we love about the Berkshires becomes more and more true, earlier each year. “To everything there is a season, a time to every purpose.” We have a beautiful seasonality in the Berkshires, both natural and communal.
No greater reminder of this seasonality is made than walking the aisles at Big Y. A few weeks ago, displays of Passover foods and Easter candy were front and center. Last week, the clearance table held a single remaining box of matzo meal, while those center displays now hold the necessities for a quality cookout, including marshmal- lows, graham crackers, and chocolate bars, the ingredients for the ultimate summer- time delight: S’mores. For everything there is a season, a time to every purpose,” es- pecially for BBQ.
These smells and tastes of Summer bring other songs to mind, like Joni Mitchell’s Circle Game. Think of the chorus, “And the seasons they go round and round / And the painted ponies go up and down / We’re captive on the carousel of time…” When we tell a good story, we note that it has a beginning, middle, and end. But Mitchell’s song reminds us that those stories are only told “behind from where we came” while we continue to go round and round in the circle game. We live life not along a single timeline, but around a circling, spiraling carousel.
The flow of time is separate and apart from our neatly told stories. We live without beginning, middle, or end. And, the meaning of our days is found in the spiraling, sea- sonal experiences we encounter.
Being mindful of the seasonality of our lives means that we embrace our identity as the “child who came out to wander”… and who “moved ten times round the sea- sons.” Praying on that image that Joni Mitchell draws in her song—being the carousel rider—spins out a thin gossamer strand of a question: are we riding on a carousel or is the experience more that of someone who is stuck spinning faster and faster, as if we intended to board the carousel but ended up riding the Tea Cups?
Answering such a question is a matter of perspective.
Looking to the natural cycle of things, we remain in pace with the seasons. The birds in the backyard remind us to relax and breath. Our gardens call to us to get out- side again. The hills tell us to go for a hike.
On the other hand, looking to the news cycle, one struggles to keep balance and catch her breath with the dizzying cycle of breaking news story after breaking news story. The Eagle’s Page 3 today was a tale of our accelerating pace: Headline One, “Trump lectures NATO allies on payments;” Headline Two, “Subpoena power upped for top dogs on intel panel;” Headline Three, “More than 100 civilians killed in airstrike by US in March;” Headline Four, “Trump’s travel ban blocked.” Over the course of the week, Trump was in Saudia Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, and Brussels. The sheer amount of information displayed on any single news page is dizzying. Staying up on what is happening in the world is getting harder and harder. And, to add to that, while read- ing the paper, how many of us also have an iPad nearby, leave the radio tuned to NPR, and the TV dialed in to CNN, MSNBC, Fox News?
A few weeks ago, eight Hevreh congregants joined me as a delegation at the Reli- gious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience in Washington DC. As part of that conference, we made a visit to our congressman’s office, to meet with Representative Neal’s chief of staff. In his office we sat around a small conference table. On the wall hung a flat-panel TV, muted and tuned to CNN. I struggled to focus on the meeting. I was watching the news. How does anyone focus or meet someone with those sort of constant distractions that compound the accelerating effects of the outside world on our lives? A recent study described in a New York Times Op Ed2 noted that those who draw emotional connections with events outside of their life—such as the political hap- penings of our world—are more likely to experience anxiety and unhappiness, that “An external locus of control brings unhappiness.”
We live in an attention economy; focus is a scarce resource. As the carousel turns, or as we spin more and more in our tea cups, we can only focus on a fixed point for but a moment, and those moments are evermore fleeting. When those things that do grab our attention upset us, it is predictable that one would report back a greater sense of unhappiness. Our phones vibrate with alerts, Facebook and Twitter feed us constant updates, and the more that gets put out on those wires, the less seems to be said, because this phenomenon of acceleration devalues our precious commodity: our ability to focus. So turn it off and tune it out, right? Put the phone in the freezer and head to Hawaii? Phones ring even when frozen, and Hawaii has Verizon.
As it seems the world accelerates around us, the answer lies in our re-embrace of our personal license. Not to tune out, but to intentionally tune in. To reject the tea cup ride and embrace the carousel. The very nature of seasons remind us that there is no beginning, middle, or end; but rather a constant flow of which we are a sacred part. And within that flow, in how we behave, in how and with whom we interact, in how we structure our time and attention, we have license. Yes, we may be captive on the carousel of time, but think of the child who experiences that carousel for the first time: it’s about pure enjoyment in the ride, itself. The Tea Cup intends to knock us off bal- ance, to make us sick to our stomachs. The carousel was created for gentle enjoyment.
And so, we are captive on the carousel of time. We turn it and turn it and turn it again, moving ten times round the seasons, we discover that everything is in it. Within the turning of our seasons, like the cycle of reading our Torah scroll, the patterns present meaning themselves. This week, we start a new book of Torah—Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. The Book is a strange middle child, who does not get as much attention, as one might expect. That may be the book itself. “Numbers lacks the sweep and grandeur of Genesis, the theological significance of Exodus, the legislative con- sistency of Leviticus, the literary unity of Deuteronomy. At first glance it hardly appears to be a ‘book’ in its own right at all.”3 But, seeing the organization of Bamidbar reveals a different message than the others. “The ‘Book of Numbers’ as we have it starts as an apparently random point and stops short of its logical conclusion.”4 The book is a not- well-written story, but it is an excellent model for carousel-living. The Israelites wander, and we wander with them through this book, and in so doing, we witness Israel’s process in which they transform from the Erev Rav—the riffraff—into Am Kadosh—a holy people.
In Number’s lack of structure lies its brilliance. It is a part of the cycle of our peo- ple’s story in which we are ever becoming more ourselves, more God’s sacred partner. The story of Numbers is about how a group of former slaves and their children slough off bondage, struggle with leadership and direction, shake off sinful deeds and rebel- lions, and transform into a people dedicated to God’s service, living in God’s holy land.
As a work of literature, the Book of Numbers is illustrative. As a work of art, it re- flects life. We jump into the story as it is in progress already, and we find that it comes to a close before any sort of true conclusion. The Book of Numbers is more like mem- oir than history or fiction. The stories told within it are personal and person-focused. They do not purport to be reporting events as they happened. Nor, do the biblical au- thors seem to tell stories as if they were just stories. The book that we now begin to study this Shabbat can be called just that—our People’s memoir of the wanderings through the wilderness. It is a portrayal that is “sometimes less than flattering of its hu- man and divine leadership,” which is what makes these coming weeks of study so rich: Numbers continues to reflect the imperfections of leadership and community. It con- tinues to communicate to us that no matter the season in which we find ourselves, there we are in the spiraling flow of things, ready to both confront and embrace the realities we encounter.
For everything there is a season, a time for every experience under heaven. We travel around and around, from season to season, and within each, we are invited into a process of being wherever we find ourselves. Out of which we engage in the sacred task of meaning making. “No matter where you go, there you are,” said Yogi Berra, in the great circle game.