Judaism Unbound Episode 61: Wandering in the Wilderness - Zack Bodner, Tova Birnbaum


Dan and Lex are joined by guest co-hosts Zack Bodner and Tova Birnbaum, from the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, California. In this episode, they explore the Torah's narrative of the wandering in the wilderness, asking how lessons from that story can apply to contemporary Jewish life.

(0:01 - 10:59): To begin the episode, Dan introduces the series that this episode commences. He explains that the next seven weeks of episodes coincide with the observance of the counting of the Omer, from Passover through Shavuot. In conjunction with this period, Judaism Unbound will be entering into conversation with a variety of people immersed in the creative world of Silicon Valley. How can their knowledge be applied to contemporary Judaism? Guest co-hosts Zack Bodner and Tova Birnbaum introduce their work as leaders at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, [1] which is fully immersed in the landscape of Silicon Valley. Birnbaum also tells the story of her journey from growing up in traditional religious Judaism to becoming one of the founders of BINA, a "secular Yeshiva" in Israel. [2]

(11:00 - 27:19): The four co-hosts enter into a conversation on the book of Exodus, specifically highlighting the period of wandering in the wilderness that occurs after departing Egypt. To what extent can this period of wandering serve as a model of a period of uncertainty -- of not-knowing -- that we might replicate today? That question serves as a launch-point into an analysis of the story of Jethro, best known for helping Moses to re-structure Israelite society.[3] How did his advice help to "flatten" Israelite leadership? Was the fact that it was an outsider like Jethro (he was a Midianite priest, not an Israelite) gave such crucial advice coincidental, or was his "outsider-ness" central to his ability to help the Israelites re-invent themselves?

Jethro, as depicted in Dreamworks' The Prince of Egypt      Image Credit: Cornel1801.com

Jethro, as depicted in Dreamworks' The Prince of Egypt      Image Credit: Cornel1801.com

(27:20 - 44:48): Myriad other stories from the wandering in the wilderness enter into the conversation. How do the narratives of the twelve spies, [4] the crossing of the Jordan 40 years later, [5] the construction of the Golden Calf, [6] and the death of Aaron's sons (Nadav and Abihu) [7] apply to a re-visioning of Jewish creativity in the 21st century? Additionally, Birnbaum asks how the opposing themes of mourning and joy, both present in the Omer, collide in ways that could prove meaningful for today's Jews. 

[1] Learn more about the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto by visiting their website.

[2] Visit the website of BINA's Secular Yeshiva by clicking here.

[3] The story of Jethro's advice to Moses can be found in chapter 18 of Exodus.

[4] Read the story of the twelve spies in chapter 13 of Numbers. For another application of this story to contemporary Jewish life, view Lex's ELI Talk.

[5] For more on the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, which chose not to cross the Jordan, read chapter 32 of Numbers.

[6] To read the story of the golden calf, check out chapter 32 of Exodus.

[7] For the story of Nadav and Abihu's death, read chapter 10 of Leviticus.