This Shabbat we begin reading the book of B'midbar, i.e., in the wilderness. The book is called "Numbers" in English because it begins with a census of all the Israelites in the camp, especially those eligible to bear arms as well as those responsible for the duties in the Tabernacle.
The first aliyahsets the stage for this book:
The Eternal One spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting. (1:1)
God gives us the Torah in the wilderness. Despite the territorial imperative that pervades even today, the place where we received Torah is ownerless, although full of life, if we examine it closely.
Having made the exodus from Egypt on the way to the land of Promise, it is on the trek that the seminal event in Jewish history transpires. Could God just as easily brought us swiftly to the homeland and told us everything we needed to know there? The twelfth century commentators addressed this question as to why the Torah was given in the desert: "Because the wilderness is open and accessible to all humankind, as it is said (Isaiah 55:1) Let everyone who is thirsty come for water (meaning, for Torah)." (B'midbar Rabbah 1:7) "Why was the Torah not given in the Promised Land? So that no one tribe would have a preferred claim." (B'midbar Rabbah 19:26) The wilderness belongs to no one, and therefore to everyone. Once land is appropriated to tribal rights and responsibilities, there is no longer a neutral ground where the Torah can apply in equal terms to every person. The Torah's lessons involve an admixture of universality and uniqueness. They have explicit application to the children of Israel, direct application to the children of Abraham and Sarah and indirect application to the children of Adam and Eve.
The desert was not a simple, inert location for the giving and receiving of Torah. In the forty years of wandering and waiting, the Children of Israel endure the hardships of a demanding, unforgiving physical environment that proved even more daunting from a spiritual perspective. The desert has many lessons to teach us. It helps to prepare us as a people in relationship to God. No longer slaves, we are in control of our decisions. In the wilderness, we learn to negotiate our relationship with God, each other and Torah. Scholar Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg explains, "The wilderness journey is to be an exercise in stabilizing the sense of God through vicissitudes, as, gradually, He withdraws His miracles." (The Particulars of Rapture, 242) Increasingly, the fate and faith of the covenantal relationship between the children and the God of Israel depends on the behavior of the children.
In a sense, our trials and travails make us stronger. The Israelites do indeed make it to the Promised Land. But they do not forget the hard times. Contemporary commentator Rabbi Harvey Fields suggests that, "this desert experience later becomes a model for Jewish behavior. During times of persecution Jews would look back upon their wanderings across the hostile Sinai desert. Recalling its trails and triumphs, they would draw inspiration and determination to overcome all forces set against them." (A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Vol. 3, 10) The desert instilled a will to persevere that has continued to serve the Jewish people to our own day, a will that provides hope for a better tomorrow.
The story of our wandering is so important that not only do we recount it continuously as part of the annual Torah cycle, but we also recount our most difficult moments of liberation into the desert every year on Pesach. The road to liberation did not end when the people crossed the River Jordan. At first we rejoiced in our liberation from Egypt. But the expression of joy was premature. We needed to learn how to survive and thrive on God's terms, not yet in our own land. We may think that forty years is a long time to wander, but in a sense, we are still in the wilderness, because the land of promise has yet to fulfill its promise and the children of Israel is still learning to accept the Torah that God entrusted to us. The wilderness is the place where we are trying to work out our relationship to ourselves, to each other and to God.
- In our commentary, we discussed a few possible interpretations of the symbol of the wilderness. What do you think the Torah was given to the Children of Israel in the wilderness? What is the wilderness meant to teach us?
- Compare the symbol of the desert to other natural settings, such as the ocean or a mountain top. How do you think the setting for our story affects our understanding of God? How would our story be different in a different setting?
- The desert can be cruel and unforgiving. It can also be stunningly beautiful and quiet. Have you ever observed something inspiring in the midst of a difficult situation? Would you have reacted differently if you had observed this same thing in a less challenging atmosphere?
For further learning
In Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rabbi Gunther Plaut provides a diagram of how the tribes were physically positioned in relation to the spiritual center of their community, the Tabernacle (which is also known as the Tent of Meeting). (898) What is the center of your house? Think of the spiritual center, the emotional center, the center of activity, the center of attention and the centerpiece. Are these centers aligned? Which of these centers would you move to the physical center, and if you did, how would it change the way you related to it and to each other?
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