B'midbar, "Into the wilderness." Each experience along the way, each encounter on our path, helps to mold us as individuals. Likewise, the travels of our ancestors through the desert wilderness helped to fashion their character. Through the inheritance of our religious tradition, their journey made its impact on our own. As we immerse ourselves in the fullest dimensions of the journey, we feel its imprint on our character, our souls, our very essence. Although it may often feel different, we do not travel alone, unguided, without direction. Just as Torah provided our people with a spiritual map for our ancient wilderness journey, it remains the sacred compass for our sojourn in life today. Torah: black fire written on white fire, revealed to us a short time after our deliverance from Egyptian slavery—only a brief period of time after we had emerged from the narrow places of Egypt into the wide expanse of the desert. With Torah in hand, our ancestors had one goal in mind: to reach the land of promise. But it was the fullness of the journey itself that enabled them to taste the abundant sweetness of freedom, for they never really did reach the Promised Land.
According to the beginning of B'midbar Rabbah, a midrashic work, the Torah was given through fire, water, and the desert. One teacher, Shem Mishmuel, suggests that these the above elements are indispensable for the acquisition of Torah: passionate, fiery enthusiasm with hearts burning for God; calm and tranquil waters so that clearheaded understanding of her teachings is possible; and travel in the desert (some say we must make ourselves into a desert), where we must be willing to undergo sacrifices to achieve Torah understanding.
Generally, the details of the wilderness journey are not given in the text. Most often, we are told only that we have to travel through the desert to reach Canaan. There seems to be no other way. But in this Torah portion, the one that introduces us to the wilderness journey, the one always read just before Shavuot near the end of the counting of the Omer, at the beginning of the Book of Numbers, the details of the journey are clearly articulated, explained so that we may gain insight and understanding. For the entire Book of Numbers is a recapitulation of the desert journey, the one we have already read about in Exodus and recently celebrated during Passover. But here's the primary difference: In this telling we find a self-reflection of the people, a kind of cheshbon hanefesh (lit. "accounting of the soul") en masse that opens the final gate for us, the last of the forty-nine gates of impurity that the mystics tell us lie between Egypt and Israel.
For me, the transformative moment in communal worship takes place after the Torah has been read. It's early in the morning—the sun only beginning to make its presence known, reminding us of the renewal of daily creation—and we gather around the reading table just as we did at the foot of the mountain. We have indeed relived the experience of the revelation of Torah through its public reading. And in plaintive tones, we mouth the words of the sacred text: "Renew our days as of old." Return us to that former time in the desert. Rather than the simple, human yearning for younger days of life, the kind of comment we make as the stresses of maturity and growth weigh heavily upon us, is a simpler plea: Bring me back to that time in the wilderness so that I may experience matan Torah—revelation—once again so that, as the liturgy continues, I may truly return to You.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is the Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, and former Dean of Adult Learning and Living at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.