"[I will] lead her to the wilderness . . ." (Hosea 2:16)
Few places lend themselves to personal growth as well as the wilderness. Whether you conceive of it as a desert or a forest, a mirage or an oasis, a wilderness is a place of nature and a refuge from the world. It is in the wilderness where our ancestors encountered God and where Torah, their stories, were revealed. As we count down these days toward the holiday of Shavuot, our Torah portion this week invites us to join Jews worldwide as we enter the backwoods. Called "Numbers" in English, the Hebrew title of this book of Torah, B'midbar, is translated as and takes place "In the Wilderness." Political scientist Robert Maclver writes, "The healthy being craves an occasional wilderness, a jolt from normality, a sharpening of the edge of appetite, his own little festival of Saturnalia, a brief excursion from his way of life."1
As summer approaches and we ready ourselves for the outdoors, consider that the wilderness, like camp, is also a school. It affords us opportunities to learn and mature. Its unique environment and landscapes teach respect for the wonders of nature and invite growth of the spirit. It was in the wilderness of Sinai that our people learned the value of each person to the community. That is where our ancestors acquired the necessary skills for survival by recognizing their mutual dependence and loyalty to one another. No longer living by the will of others, the experiences recorded by those who came before us teach us the values of freedom in creating our own destinies, the conviction in our will to survive as a people, and the importance of experience to bolster education.
B'midbar reflects the uncertain and adventurous human journey of every generation, including ours! The trials facing the Israelites as they trek across the wilderness for forty years, maturing as a people, mirror the obstacles, successes, and failures that we encounter in life as a people and as individuals. During the course of our lives, we are certain to spend time in the rough country. Like Moses did personally, like the Israelites did long ago, we cannot help but gain perspective when times are tough, and afterwards we often find a new appreciation for life. The experience of disappointment can bring other rewards. While in the wilderness, for instance, the Children of Israel experience constant danger. A newly freed people, this allowed them to mature as a community and enabled them to receive the priceless gift of Torah; a gift given in "no man's land" and therefore belonging to no one and to everyone.2
In the very first words of the portion we hear, "The Eternal One spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai" (Numbers 1:1). The title of the book itself is a play on words in Hebrew. While midbar is translated as "wilderness" or "desert," the same word also means "speech" and "to talk." So one might translate the first words of the book as, "The Eternal One spoke to Moses in the words of Sinai." A wilderness is a landscape without externally imposed order; its own intrinsic beauty requires nothing from outside its ecosystem. While in Sinai, our ancestors compressed the wonder of God into words. They filled the silence of the desert with the vocabulary to ask: Who is God? What does God demand of us? What is the meaning of what is happening to us? And where are we going?
We still do this today! Life happens: we grow up, try new things, fail, start new jobs, fall in love, become parents, live through loss, and get sick, always growing, always learning something new. And in our search to make meaning out of our experiences, the Torah of our lives, we use our words to tell a story. We write the story on the scroll of our souls, using words to tell even ourselves that the story is fundamental to the incident it explains. It becomes more important than the event itself. The event is locked into a moment in time, but the story can be retold endlessly.
In essence, you are your own Torah. As you encounter the world, you record the critical events of your life on the parchment of your very soul. You tell and retell your stories to others and yourself, knowing for certain what occurred in your life, because it happened to you! The power of our shared Torah rests partly in its ability as sacred literature to articulate your stories better than you can. So at any given moment in which you engage in the study of Torah, you might emote; you may feel angry or sad, curious or content, elated or frustrated. Why? Because the point of intersection between the scroll of your own life and the Torah of the Jewish people is ripe with opportunities for growth.
By living your life consciously as a member of a Jewish community, you can tell your stories, come into contact with the Torah of the Jewish people, and, in doing so, learn a great deal about the meaning of your own life. It is with others that we best come to understand why the Torah was conceived and received in a wild, pure place. It was the silence of the desert that inspired the awe and respect of our ancient relatives. Get out, take a hike, explore the Torah of your soul, and join us on a journey through the wilderness scroll.
- See http://blog.gaiam.com/quotes/authors/robert-maclver/68501
- M'chilta to Exodus 19:2
Rabbi Philip "Flip" Rice is co-senior rabbi at Congregation Micah in Nashville, Tennessee, where he shares the pulpit with his wife, Rabbi Laurie Rice.