Writing about the Book of Numbers, Arnie Eisen hears the text proclaim, "Welcome to the real world…. It is not a sanctuary." He contrasts the orderly world of Leviticus with the chaos of B'midbar, a place without landmarks, whose story is recounted in a book that also seems to lack structure. Things happen: There is confrontation, even drama, but unlike in earlier books of the Torah, the story line does not progress. Instead, the text seems to double back on itself, sometimes literally, returning the Israelites to places they had visited earlier. Complaints are also repeated and when solutions are attempted, as in the appointment of seventy leaders to assist Moses, they seem as insubstantial as a mirage in the desert.
The novellas of the contemporary Israeli writer Shulamith Hareven provide a convincing depiction of the world of B'midbar. She describes a world of uncertainty, in which even Moses has a shadowy quality and the Presence of God is even more remote. It is a world in which the physical setting plays a very significant role-a real world in which progress is uncertain and day-to-day life consumes all the available energy:
An immense freedom, vast beyond human measure, hung over everything. The days had no rules and the laws of nature themselves seemed suspended. There was no longer any need to rise for work in the morning. There were no masters and no slaves. There was only the desert…. They moved from place to place in the desert, hopping back and forth among its few springs, from tamarisk to zyzyph tree, their comings and goings pointless apart from the needs of their flocks…. There was no purpose to their lives. It simply was not Egypt. They had exchanged hard labor for freedom. Slavery was over but nothing else had taken its place.
We think of ourselves as very different from the simple, ignorant wanderers of Hareven's desert tales. We think of our lives as so much more orderly and goal directed than the aimless wanderings of our ancestors. We are the spiritual descendants of those who imposed the name Numbers on this book-Numbers, implying that through measuring and counting, drawing up lists and keeping records, we can create order, imitating the great Creator of order, God.
But to me, the message of this book is that the gap between the Divine and the human is immense and that the order we can create is only partial. We can hold a vision, but we cannot hold to it: We get distracted; we become mired in small details and pressing problems; and our progress toward the ideal seems infinitesimal. We do not even have absolute control over our own bodies, and the best of our plans are often rendered insignificant by forces beyond our control.
Yet by the end of B'midbar, something significant has occurred. The Israelites have coalesced into a community. They have been successful against the Amorites and are ready to enter the Promised Land. Their experience is often our own. At times, our lives seem without form or direction. But when we find ourselves back where we started, we discover that we are not really the same as we were. We may feel as if we have been spinning our wheels, but even that has had some effect. B'midbar is ultimately a Jewish book, affirming, even in the midst of chaos and disorientation, the possibility of progress and the triumph of ideals.
For Further Reading
- Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America , Arnie Eisen, Indiana University Press, 1996.
- Thirst: The Desert Trilogy, Shulamith Hareven, Mercury House, 1996.
Rabbi Melanie Aron has served Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, CA since 1990.