Two contradictory themes permeate the Book of Torah we begin reading this Shabbat. On the one hand the Book of Numbers (sefer hapikudim) contains lists, census records, details of who stands where and which bit of the sanctuary which sub-section of which tribe are responsible for carrying and guarding. On the one hand the book of Numbers is about order.
On the other hand sefer bemidbar – literally Book of Wilderness - is about the encounter with dislocation, wandering, raw elemental nature. It is an experience of chaos.
This narrow bridge connecting the ordered and the chaotic it is a well worn Jewish path through life and faith. The Succah – the sheltered dwelling designed to remind us of the time, says Rabbi Akiva, when we were wrapped up in clouds of glory, so secure were we in the experience of God’s love, is also the experience of encountering the nature – rain, cold …
There are times in our lives when we need order, security and comfort. We want to know where everything is and we want to feel sure in our role and our surroundings.
And then there are times when we need some chaos, we need to be bounced out of our insularity, challenged to do better, forced to confront our weaknesses and our failings. The great skill, in life, is recognising when we need one and when we need the other. The great task in life, be it as a friend, a relative, a Rabbi or a passing stranger is to know when to offer comfort or chaos to those we meet, whether, in the words of the Chicago based humorist and journalist Finley Peter Dunne (d. 1936) we should be seeking to ‘comfort th' afflicted [or] afflict th' comfortable.’