How do we know when to move forward in our lives and when to stop? What are the signs we look for to tell us when to make a change?
I recently saw an ad on line for a Father’s Day special on the DVD of the movie, “Field of Dreams.” That was one film that featured its own mysterious signs in the form of riddles that character Ray Kinsella recognized and followed, not necessarily knowing where they would lead.
Ray’s directions came from a disembodied but persistent voice that only he could hear. “If you build it, he will come” brought Shoeless Joe Jackson’s ghost once Ray leveled part of his crops to build a baseball field, and other classic baseball stars who had died long ago followed.
“Ease his pain” took Ray to a writer in Boston who had a special affinity for Baseball and its place in American culture.
“Go the distance” led Ray and his new companion to a small town in Minnesota, where a momentary trip back in time allowed them to pick up a young baseball player who was hitchhiking and looking for his one chance to join real major leaguers on the field.
This journey led Ray across the country, from Iowa to Massachusetts, then to Minnesota, and back home.
Why did Ray even listen to this voice? What was it inside of him that led him to heed the directions he was hearing? He probably didn’t really know the answer to that question until he saw that one of the ghostly players on the field was his own father at a stage in his life when he was still young and hopeful. Ray’s connection with his father had been strained by conflict and bitterness. The point of this entire tale was the healing of a broken relationship. That encounter and a short game of catch as the movie ended enabled Ray to let go of feelings of guilt and move forward with satisfaction and even joy.
Ray had that voice that made him take the risks to do unimaginable things once he saw that each step he took led to miraculous results.
The Torah reading for this Shabbat from Numbers Chapter 9 describes the Pillar of Cloud and fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness. When the Cloud would lift, it was a sign for the people to set out on their journey. When it would come back to rest, the people would set up camp. It is likely that not even Moses knew when the cloud would lift or settle. He was like everyone else in that respect.
What it is interesting about the Israelite response to the pillar of cloud and fire is that it is the only thing against which they didn’t rebel or complain along their journey.
In this Torah portion, they complained about eating only manna and no meat, so God gave them so much meat in the form of quail that they would no longer want it.
In the next two Torah portions, the people would rebel against Moses’ leadership and demonstrate pessimism when scouts returned from the land of Canaan.
There was, however, never a complaint against the pillar of cloud and fire. The people followed it faithfully, no matter what. Why did the people follow that divinely sent guide?
The answer would be that, deep down, even though they had grown accustomed to living as slaves in Egypt, they really didn’t want to go back there even when they said they did.
They were afraid of change, but on this trek through the wilderness, change was a way of life. And they had already been freed from Egypt and escaped the approaching Egyptian army because of miracles performed for them which they had witnessed. So even though they complained, many of them still believed that they would live free in their promised land. That is why, even with all their kvetching, they kept moving forward.
In an online article entitled, “What motivates people to change?” Dr. Arlene Harder suggested three possibilities for why we choose to leave our status quo behind.
One reason that we change is that we are being pulled by the cycle of our lives and our biological make-up to grow. We crawl, walk and then run. We form relationships, develop close friendships and perhaps choose a life partner and maybe have children. And through all of those changes, we gain a new vision of who we can be and do what we can to reach that new goal.
Sometimes we are pushed to change, to modify our behavior for some reason. Harder explained: “If our job depends on changing some habit or characteristic of our personality, the odds that we’ll modify our behavior are fairly good, provided we’re not asked to make too significant of a shift in how we see ourselves. In some cases, it may be easier to find another job than change long-ingrained patterns of behavior.” Harder noted that this approach works only up to a point, because people, in her words, “don’t respond well to nagging, pleading, cajoling, or demanding” that they drastically alter who they are.
Harder suggested that the third reason for change is pain. Sometimes we get to a point where we can’t go on living in the same way due to discomfort or challenges that just can’t be overcome unless a change is made.
Harder’s three reasons for change relate to the Israelites journey through the wilderness. They were in pain in Egypt and they were ultimately willing to accept the outside and godly help that came their way. Their complaining could be viewed as the consequences of their growth into a community dedicated to a shared purpose. As a people, they had to find their equilibrium where they could naturally work together and serve their leaders and each other. That finally did happen.
To make any change at all is an important accomplishment. The saying “courage is the power to let go of the familiar” could describe the times when we have moved forward in our lives, whether because of being pulled by our own restlessness and need to grow, pushed by others to make small adjustments in our personalities, or moved by a feeling of distress or disequilibrium.
Sometimes we ignore the restlessness, make all the changes requested even if it means losing who we are, and continue to bear the pain.
It is courage that is our pillar of cloud and fire that can take us to our goal of reaching our promised land or creating our own field of dreams where our deepest hopes can be made real.
In our Mishkan T’filah prayerbook, on page 119, there is a reading that speaks to our inner motivation and instinct to change, associating it with a higher purpose:
"If people fall, can they not also rise?
If they break away, can they not return?
The stork in the sky knows when to migrate,
The dove and the swallow know the season of return.
What human instinct knows the time to turn back?
What cue sparks the conscience of the soul?
We pray to sense this day anew, attuned to the call of sacred living."
[By Elyse Frishman, based on Jeremiah 8:4,7]