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The Wilderness: A Place for Lovers

  • The Wilderness: A Place for Lovers

    B'midbar, 1:1−4:20
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

  • 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. . . . (Numbers 1:1)
  • That is when I will entice her to Me, lead her to the wilderness, and speak to her heart. (Hosea 2:16)

D'var Torah

With this week's Torah portion, we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Numbers, B'midbar. Its English name is based on the Latin word for numbers and derived from the census of the Israelites that God commands Moses to take in the opening verses. The traditional Hebrew name, B'midbar, "In the Wilderness," provides the setting for the entire book and resumes the saga of the Israelites where the second book, Exodus, ends. The third book, Leviticus, consists primarily of laws related to the priesthood and is not a part of the historical narrative.

It might seem that there is very little in this week's Torah portion to inspire comment: there is a census of the twelve tribes, a description of the encampment of the tribes around the Tabernacle, and further enumeration of several families of the tribe of Levi, including the families of Moses and Aaron. But throughout the Book ofB'midbar, its very name reminds us of the covenant that is consummated between God and Israel in the wilderness of Sinai.

I use the word "consummated," a word often related to marriage, advisedly, because the prophets often refer to the wilderness of Sinai as the place where God and Israel fall in love, and that love is consummated at the sacred mountain. Mount Sinai is the chuppah, "the bridal canopy," and the Torah is the k'tubah, "the marriage contract." And so we find Isaiah declaring to Israel, "Your husband is the one who created you" (Isaiah 54:5), and Jeremiah reminding Israel of "your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness" (Jeremiah 2:2). It has even been suggested that whenever we use the phrase asher kid'shanu, "who has sanctified us," before performing a mitzvah, we are reminding God, as it were, of the kiddushin, "the marriage," between ourselves and God. The mitzvah we then perform is a token of our eternal love for God, a gift from the beloved to her betrothed.

The image of the divine marriage between God and Israel provides a bridge between the Torah portion and the haftarah, which takes up the metaphor of the marriage between God and Israel. The following are points of connection between the two:

  • The census—The Torah portion opens with God commanding a census of the tribes, while the haftarah opens with the words "The number of the people of Israel. . . ."
  • The wilderness—The Torah portion locates the people of Israel in the wilderness, while in the haftarah, the prophet Hosea has God enticing Israel to the wilderness, to "respond as when she was young, when she came up out of Egypt" (Hosea 2:17).

This haftarah, taken from the second chapter of Hosea, is particularly poignant and beautiful. In the preceding chapter, God instructs the prophet to marry a harlot who will be as unfaithful to her husband as Israel is to God. Scholars disagree as to whether Hosea actually married a harlot or whether the marriage is a literary metaphor describing how Israel panders herself to the surrounding nations by adopting idolatrous worship. In either instance, the prophet cries out to the children of his unfaithful wife, as God cries out to the prophet:

Complain against your mother, complain
for she is no longer My wife,
and I am not her husband!
Let her remove her whorings from her face,
her adulteries from between her breasts. (Hosea 2:4)

In the next few poetic verses, the prophet describes the continued acts of faithlessness and the suffering that Israel (his wife?) is made to endure because of her shameless behavior. But ultimately there is a reconciliation. It may be Hosea speaking of his wife or God speaking of Israel, or both.

That is when I will entice her to Me,
lead her through the wilderness,
and speak to her heart.
From there I will give her back her vineyards,
and make the Valley of Trouble
the Door of Hope:
there she shall respond as when she was young,
when she came up out of Egypt. (Hosea 2:16-17)

It is in the wilderness, the place where God and Israel first fall in love and enter into their b'rit of eternal faithfulness, that love is rekindled and their vows renewed. The beautiful, tender words chosen by Hosea to renew the covenant are often used in wedding ceremonies today, just after the exchange of rings and the vows. Those who don t'fillin for morning prayers also recite these words as they wind the leather thong around their ring fingers.

I will betroth you to Me forever;
I will betroth you to Me
in righteousness and justice,
in steadfast love and compassion.
I will betroth you to Me
in faithfulness,
and you shall know the Eternal. (Hosea 2:21-22)

By the Way

  • Unending is Your love for Your people, the House of Israel: Torah and Mitzvot, laws and precepts have You taught us. . . . Then your love shall never depart from our hearts! We praise You, O God: You love Your people Israel. [Ahavat Olam, in Gates of Prayer (1994), Evening Service]
  • A story is told about the founding of the Israeli city Petach Tikvah in 1878 by observant Jews from Jerusalem who were looking for a place where they could establish a farming village (moshavah). They saw an attractive area near the Yarkon River that looked like it might be suitable for agriculture. One of the founders, though, as they were examining the area, said that it looked to him, quoting from Hosea 2:17, like a "desolate valley"—emek achor. And immediately his companion quoted the rest of that verse: " and the desolate valley shall be a gateway of hope " - petach tikvah. With faith in the promise of that verse, they established their farming community with ten families. Petach Tikvah became known as the eim hamoshavot, "the mother of settlements," and is today a suburb to the east of Tel Aviv with about one hundred thousand inhabitants. (Simeon J. Maslin)
  • The final clause of Hosea's beautiful threefold vow can be translated either "and you shall be devoted to the Eternal" or "and you shall know the Eternal." The Hebrew word translated either as "devoted" or "know" is derived from yada, which sometimes indicates intellectual knowledge and other times carnal knowledge, as in "The man knew [yada] his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain" (Genesis 4:1) or "Elkanah knew [ yada] his wife Hannah . . ." (I Samuel 1:19).

In our verse, considering the love story context, there is every likelihood that the prophet was suggesting that the love between God and Israel after the renewal of the covenant would be so strong and so intimate that it would be as if they were actually physical lovers.

Your Guide

  1. We find references to the blossoming of the love between God and Israel in the wilderness or the desert in the writings of several of the prophets. What is it about the midbar that has inspired even modern authors to see it as a "romantic" place?
  2. Do you think that Hosea actually did marry an unfaithful woman, or was his "marriage" only a metaphor?
  3. Can you think of instances in our prayer book of references to the love between God and Israel?

Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin is Rabbi Emeritus of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel of Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and is a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

6/04/2005
Reference Materials: 

B'midbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,028-1,043; Revised Edition, pp. 897-916;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 787-814