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.
If God's instructions to Moses at the beginning of Parashat B'midbar (Num. 1:1- 4:20) are my indication, it's not a wilderness out there, it's a jungle.
God tells Moses to take a census of all Israelite males, aged twenty and older, capable of bearing arms. (Num. 1:2-3) Where else in the Torah have people been counted in terms of their potential strength as an army? Two instances come to mind:
While awaiting the arrival of Esau (Gen. 32:4-32), Jacob is warned that Esau is coming with four hundred men. Jacob prepares by dividing his people and property into two groups so that at least one group may escape if the other is attacked. Then he counts, very precisely, the flocks that he will offer as gifts to his brother. The presumed aggressor, Esau, is measured in the number of warriors and in the quantity of the gifts it may take to appease him. As it turns out, Esau comes already inclined toward making peace, and Jacob's preparations, with their apparently hostile implications, must be explained away.
The Book of Exodus begins with the numbering of Jacob's issue—all who entered Egypt—at a mere seventy persons. Fast forward four hundred years and the text informs us that Pharaoh is alarmed by the burgeoning demographics of his Israelite slaves and opts to oppress them all the more to prevent them from becoming a military threat. (Exod. 1:1-12) "But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased." Pharaoh's accounting backfires, and the central epic of the Jewish people, the deliverance from Egyptian bondage, ensues.
How does the census in the wilderness differ from these previous events in which an accounting of battleworthy persons is turned upside down? The census given in the Book of Numbers is not a lesson about peace between brothers nor a literary prefigurement, warning that tyranny such as Pharaoh's cannot prevail. The Israelite people have been toughened by their experience of slavery, escape, physical hardship, and struggles of faith. And they must become tougher still. There is a big, cruel world of enemies out there, and survival hinges on whether the people are numerous enough and well-organized enough to ward off or defeat them in battle. Even the role of the Levites, who are excluded from the military census, is described in defensive terms: They are to guard the Tabernacle by positioning themselves on all sides of it. (Num. 1:53)
God's command to count heads is said to reflect God's love for the people of Israel, a caressing of their numbers as one might count and dote on a fabulous treasure. (Numbers Rabbah 2:19) Rashi, in his commentary on Numbers 1:1, expands upon this to say that God counts the people also because God needs the people to carry out our part in the task of tikkun olam, "world-repair."
These motivations for the census-taking in B'midbar are compelling. But just as true is the real-world necessity to defend ourselves—physically and, as Rabbi Olitzky emphasizes, spiritually—from the external forces with which our people have always had to contend. If the mathematics of the parashah are difficult, so is the political reality in which we dwell. We have never truly left the wilderness.
Karen Winkler Weiss, RJE, is the Hebrew Coordinator at Temple Har Zion in Thornhill, Ontario.
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