There are only three places in Torah: Mitzrayim or Egypt, which means "the narrow place" in Hebrew; eretz zavat chalav u' d'vash, "land that flows with milk and honey" at the opposite end of the continuum; and in the middle, midbar, the unknown empty space of wilderness. It is midbar, this in-between place, that is at the center of our attention this week (and, for that matter, the next eight weeks). It is the overriding theme of the entirety of the Book of Numbers in Hebrew, B'midbar, "In Wilderness."
While often translated as "In the Wilderness," let me note that the name of this week's parashah and the book it commences can be read as "In Wilderness," at least if we are translating just the word B'midbar by itself. The vocalization of B'midbar has a sh'va beneath the first letter bet, which sounds like b' or beh, indicating the word "in." There is no patach under the bet (ba) to indicate a definite article, "the." Reading the word in isolation, therefore, one can find a hint that midbar is a larger, more generic notion than a specific place. Wilderness is more than a construct of geography: it is a state of being.
The same holds true for the other two places. Mitzrayim, the narrow place, is that from which we seek to flee. It is tzuris, "troubles," the Yiddish equivalent. Breathing is hard in Egypt. Life feels like you're living in a room where the walls are slowly but constantly closing in. By contrast, the "land of milk and honey" is the place we ultimately seek (but alas, like Moses, we never quite get there). Torah describes it as a land that "flows,"1 (Exodus 3:8, 33:3; Numbers 14:8; Deuteronomy 31:20) suggestive of a world that is unconstrained, completely liberated. Reminiscent of the flowing rivers within the Garden of Eden, this is the end of the rainbow. And in between these two extremes is midbar, the place of transition, the place of neither here nor there, the place wherein we live most of our lives.
Years ago a woman came to me in search of advice. She was in an unhealthy marriage. She said she felt trapped but was afraid of taking that necessary first step, the one from which there is no going back. At once I heard these words coming out of my mouth: "If you want to leave your Egypt and get to your Promised Land, you have to be willing to traverse wilderness." Midbar is a place of nothing. It is empty. There are no guarantees in wilderness, no assurances. It can be scary. It is a place of wandering (which can, at times, feel endless). But it is also a place of discovery. Midbar—from the root dalet-vet-reish, which also is the root for "word" in Hebrew—is where Torah is found. Wilderness is where we meet God. Wilderness is where we encounter our self. It is the place of growth. And there's no getting around it. Midbar is the only way to the Promised Land. It is a sacred place.
Yet, when seen between the two polarities, midbar all too often gets the short end of the stick. Mitzrayim, at the one extreme, plays a dominant role in Torah. Mitzrayim is the seminal place of the Jewish people, the central focus of the Passover seder, the backdrop to the cosmic drama between God and Pharaoh. And what's at the other end of the spectrum? What can compete with the "land of milk and honey," the endgame of our dreams? Each year, on Passover, we utter the collective wish of our people: "Next Year in Jerusalem." And in between is midbar, the means to the ends—as if it were a place in search of an identity.
Is it not the same way with our lives? We focus so much on the things with which we struggle, we direct so much of our attention onto our hopes and dreams. Yet the place wherein we eat and sleep and argue and love, the day-to-day journeys that move us from and to and sometimes back again, the ordinary landscape of life somehow gets overshadowed. But, well we know, it is the most important part.
In the Rabbinic literature as well as throughout the Chasidic commentaries, midbar has come to be understood as the ground zero of all human transformation. If you desire change, if you hope for anything new to come from within, you must first open yourself up like the midbar, "oseh atzmo k'midbar: Make oneself like the wilderness" (Midrash, B'midbar Rabbah 1:7). From this we can see then that these three places—mitzrayim, midbar, and eretz zavat chalav u'd'vash—represent not only the transitions of our lives but also the essential aspects of our souls. They are the components from who we are to who we hope to be. I am Egypt, narrow-minded, so often thinking only of myself, emotionally stuck between a rock and a hard place. But I want to become a n'shamah, "soul," that flows with sweetness. I want to embrace others with a heart that is open. Yet for this to happen I must become wilderness. I must empty myself. Erase my ego. Start from scratch. As such, midbar is a metaphor for rebirth, a doorway to Torah, a pathway to God, as we read in Itturei Torah:
"If one wishes to merit the receiving of Torah, one must . . . be naked and completely empty, like Midbar" (Yechiel Dov Shoham quoted in Itturei Torah, vol. 5 [Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing, 1980], pp.7-8)
"God's Presence (Shechinah) will rest only on one who is worthy, who has made oneself like the midbar . . . " (Menachem Mendel Morgenstern of Kotzk quoted in Itturei Torah, vol. 5 [Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing, 1980], p.9).
Perhaps it is just coincidence that we read Parashat B'midbar on the eve of Shavuot when we re-receive God's word. But maybe not. For just as we are commanded to make ourselves right and "pure" before the receiving of Torah (Exodus 19), so on the eve of Shavuot we are reminded that midbar is a necessary first step toward one's becoming an open vessel to the word of God.
1. See Exodus 3:8, 33:3; Numbers 14:8; Deuteronomy 31:20
Rabbi Steven Kushner is concluding his 35th year as the rabbi of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey.