One of the most exciting gifts I received for my Bar Mitzvah was a brand new mountain bike. As a child I loved cycling round the block, and when I was at university for three years I cycled everywhere with my trusty mountain bike. It feels like I have always been riding bikes, so much so that I can’t actually remember my dad teaching me how to ride a bike. But I imagine, as difficult as it was for me to learn, it was harder for him.
I am sure that he ran alongside me, holding me up as I pedalled; while he supported me, balanced me and made sure I did not fall. And eventually he must have released his grip, and trusted me to cycle on my own. He had to let me go to allow me to really pedal and balance unsupported. And he had to accept the risk that I might fall. Teaching a child to ride a bike requires a moment where the parent steps back and allows the child to cycle independently. It must be a tremendously difficult moment as the parent has to let go.
I often imagine that our relationship with God can be likened to a parental relationship. Today, we are riding our bicycles as God stands off to the side. This is not to say that God is absent, or does not care. Rather God watches, smiling as we cycle forward and weeping when we fall.
The way that our relationship with God has developed can be seen when we read the stories in our Torah. In this week’s Torah portion the Israelites journey from Sinai begins, and God is clearly at the front, supporting and leading the people. ‘At a command of Adonai the Israelites broke camp, and at a command of Adonai they made camp: they remained encamped as long as the cloud stayed over the Tabernacle… On a sign from Adonai they made camp and on a sign from Adonai they broke camp’ (Numbers 9:18&23). God appears unwilling, or unable, to allow the people to move forward on their own. Like the parent holding the bicycle while the child pedals. God led us through the wilderness and we followed.
There is certainly something appealing about this Divine relationship. It would be nice to have God guiding and directing us. We would not need to make any real decisions; instead we could rely on a sign from God to tell us exactly what we should do. And if we transgressed one of God’s commandments we could have expected an instantaneous punishment (we just need to read the story of Korach in two weeks time, when he is swallowed up by the earth – Numbers 16:1-35).
But that situation would be akin to riding a bike, if not with a parent’s support, then at least with two stabiliser wheels connected to the back. There comes a time when the parent has to let go, and the child has to pedal forward independently. We live at a time when God has let go, and we have to live independently. The spoon fed generation of the wilderness behaved in a way which reflected their situation. They were constantly complaining when they went without food or water for a day or two at a time, expecting everything to be provided for them. They were overly reliant on God; we have attained some form of independence.
The relationship with God is never broken, but we are allowed to live our lives with freedom of choice and an ability to discern for ourselves what is right and what is wrong. We may make mistakes, and we may lack the certainty of a direct connection to God. But we are being treated like adults (the very thing children so often appear to desire), and we are being entrusted with tremendous gifts: the gifts of independence, freedom and choice. God trusts us to exercise them appropriately and God hopes that we will continue to move forward, making progress, because after all it’s just like riding a bike.