A core teaching of Jewish spiritual practice is our readiness to read the Torah in many different ways. We find meaning and significance across entire books; or we zoom in, such that an individual letter or even an accent mark fills our field of vision and discloses sacred truth. The weekly parashah is, of course, the most common "unit" for informing our reading. This week's Torah portion, B'midbar, is the first in the Book of Numbers. The books of the Torah (and many classical Hebrew books) are named after their first important word; thus, B'midbar is the name of both the fourth book of the Five Books of the Torah and of the weekly Torah portion. This year, for me, it is the name of the portion itself that speaks to me, crying out in Rashi's wonderful expression, "Darsheini! Explain me!" (see, e.g., Rashi on Genesis 1:1). B'midbar means "in the wilderness," "in the wild place," "wandering in unchartered lands."
The parashah begins: "Vaiy'dabeir Adonai el-Mosheh b'midbar Sinai b'ohel mo-eid . . . " In The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised edition, the translation reads: "On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Eternal One spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting . . ." (W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005] p. 899). The crucial word, b'midbar, is not at the beginning in this version. Seeking to convey the force of the Hebrew in idiomatic English, the translators reversed the sequence of phrases, moving the date up before the location. A more precise, word-for-word translation is: "And Adonai spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt . . ."
However translated, this verse represents a strange alchemy of precision and vagueness. A specific moment in time during the Israelites' journey from Egypt toward the Promised Land is noted: "On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt"-this has the carefulness of a legal document, and is consistent with the overall priestly concern for detailed instructions and memoranda. In contrast with this distinct date, the location of the encounter is not specified: it is simply, "B'midbar . . . in the wilderness."
Wilderness is as important a concept in the Bible as it is for us. Again and again, it is in the wilderness-the uncivilized, unmapped place-where sacred encounters occur. Moses first encounters God when his flock of sheep are wandering achar hamidbar, literally "beyond the wilderness" (Exodus 3:1); later he asks Pharaoh to give the Israelites not just respite from their labors, but also leave to go on a spiritual pilgrimage outside of the urban center: "Let us go, we pray, a distance of three days into the wilderness . . ." (Exodus 5:3). When Jacob flees from Esau, he heads toward Haran, but his life-transforming encounter takes place in a random place in the middle of nowhere; he unexpectedly collides with the Place, or as commentators have long explained, with God (cf B'reishit Rabbah 68:9).
Despite our achievements and progress, as individuals and as a people, many of us may find that we are ourselves b'midbar, in the wilderness . Our plans, our health, our careers, and our families' lives do not unfold in the ways that we have anticipated or yearned for, and we find ourselves wandering in uncharted territory; a diagnosis or death can suddenly upend the carefully constructed balance of our ordinary patterns. It is not that we must be in a place of pain or despair or lost in order to commune with God; rather, it is in these times that we may be more open to the encounter. The Psalmist describes reaching out to God from a lost place: "From the narrow place I called out to you; You answered me from the wide place of Yah" (Psalm 118:5). Judaism teaches that, even in the hours of greatest distress, we are never alone: "When you pass through water, I will be with you" (Isaiah 43:2).
The unknown, unexpected, unpredictable midbar where we encounter the Presence and voice of the sacred can be a positive place, too. I've heard commentator Aviva Zornberg teach that authentic prayer always leads us to midbar, unexpected and unchartered territory. Much of the halachic (Jewish legal) tradition about prayer emphasizes the regularity and fixed dimensions of prayer. Not only is there a great emphasis on reciting the correct words at the correct time of day and season of the year, but the shaliach tzibur (service leader) goes back and repeats the entire Amidah in case anyone in the congregation has made a mistake! (For Reform Jews, this dimension of prayer is perhaps most clearly invoked in responsive reading, when we all recite prescribed words in unison.) Yet the Mishnah cautions against letting your prayer become rote: "If one makes of his t'filah a fixed task, his t'filah is not a supplication." (Mishnah, B'rachot 4:4). The Amidah, the Rabbis teach, is never complete unless we conclude with our personal, private prayer. I find, for myself, that this can be a very terrifying experience. Often, I feel that I am not truly praying; I am reciting the words, I am standing and sitting, but it is not true prayer. On those occasions when I do open myself up in silent prayer, giving voice to what is truly within, I quickly become overwhelmed by all that I suddenly have to say-or do not yet even have words for. In these moments, when I allow myself to truly let in the fullness of awe and yearning and gratitude that I carry but mostly keep tapped down, I am b'midbar, in a wild, untamed, and unorganized place. It is when we are b'midbar that we enter the Ohel Mo-eid, the Tent of Meeting.
For Martin Buber, the I-Thou dialogue always takes place in this Ohel Mo-eid. Every truly honest conversation, especially with those who are most beloved to us, is a dialogue b'midbar. When we are actually listening, with armor down and heart open, fully hearing and not busily composing a reply, open to the unexpected and uncharted-it is such an encounter that Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon describes in the Mishnah: "When two sit together and engage in the study of Torah, the Divine Presence is present between them" (Pirkei Avot 3:3).
Rabbi Yoel H. Kahn is the rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, California.