In the Wilderness

B'midbar, Numbers 1:1−4:20

D'Var Torah By: Jonathan Stein

Focal Point

  • Adonai spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai… (Numbers 1:1)
  • The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance. (Numbers 2:2)
  • As they camp, so they shall march… (Numbers 2:17)

D'var Torah

This week we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah. Its English title, Numbers, comes from the census that God commands Moses to take in the second verse of the parashah. But the Hebrew title of the book, taken from the very first verse of the sidrah, is different. The tradition calls this book B'midbar, meaning "In the Wilderness" (or "In the Desert"). This Hebrew name is much more descriptive of the contents of the book as a whole than is the designation Numbers.

The thirty-eight-year wilderness experience of our ancestors was crucial to the development of our self- understanding as a people. In later Jewish consciousness, these years of wandering would be remembered as an ideal time when, despite the struggles for material survival, we were especially close to God. The life of the city dweller would come to be viewed as suspiciously corrupt, while that of the shepherd and farmer, who are closer to the desert experience, would be treasured. Still, these thirty-eight years of nomadic roaming must have been terribly difficult: The environment was physically harsh; the demanding impact of the Torah had just begun to sink into the people's consciousness; and the Israelites, who were constantly bickering, yearned for the imagined comforts of Egypt.

Just like our ancestors, how quickly we can enter into a spiritual wilderness when life is challenging. Living "in the wilderness" can be a metaphor, a symbol for the difficult times we all inevitably experience. These periods of our lives can be terrifying, producing feelings of loneliness, disorientation, uncertainty, and loss of faith, as well as a negation of our values. But this week's Torah portion also offers us some guidance.

Immediately following the census, God instructs the tribes and the Levites to take up positions around the Tabernacle, which was to remain at the very center of the camp. (See The Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut, New York: UAHC Press, 1981, p. 1,027.) As the focus of the people's attention, the Ark and the Tabernacle were powerful symbols of God's Presence. "Every individual was located in relation to the Ark and the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was the first thing one saw on leaving home and the first thing one looked for on returning home. Gradually, this physical centrality must have led to the Ark's gaining a central place in the Israelite soul" (Etz Chayim, New York: The Jewish Publication Society, 2001, p. 774). Like our ancestors, each of us sees God from a slightly different perspective, depending upon where we are encamped in life, but God remains the focal point, our anchor and compass in bad times and good.

Two other teachings derived from this week's parashah can also help us regain our direction when we're lost "in the wilderness." The midrash teaches that by purposely revealing the Torah in the middle of a desert, God was trying to show us the importance of humility. Humility includes an awareness of one's smallness and is a necessary trait for attaining contentment in life. A humble person is satisfied with what he or she has and feels gratitude, thanksgiving, and awe, all of which are essential for finding a spiritual place in God's world. Difficult times remind us of the need for humility.

And finally, maintaining one's integrity can be a key ingredient to emerging whole from troubled times "in the wilderness." The statement "As they camp, so shall they march…" (Numbers 2:17) has been interpreted homiletically to teach that one should be the same person at home and away; in private and in public; on the inside and on the outside; in our thoughts and our intentions; and in our speech and our behavior. Maintaining integrity when life is difficult can be an enormous challenge: Doing so allows us to emerge from our struggles with our self-respect and dignity intact.

Finding ourselves "in the wilderness" of life, as our ancestors did during this formative period of our history, can be incredibly tough. But we are blessed as Jews to possess the spiritual resources that help us slowly find our way toward the Promised Land.

By the Way

  • Out of the desert, with all of its dangers, came the Torah, which is our proudest possession and gives to our group-life as Jews its most authentic character and to all humanity the most valid promise of continuing creative contributions to the total fund of human understanding. That voice spoke in the desert. (Morris Adler, The Voice Still Speaks, New York: Bloch, 1969, pp. 265-268)
  • Only a person who is willing to make nothing of himself, who thinks of himself as a desert, is truly worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on him and of attaining the true light of the Torah. Furthermore, a person should always think of himself as if being in the desert so that he will lean entirely on his own resources. "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" [Hillel, quoted in Pirkei Avot 1:14] (Rabbi Menachen Mendl of Kotzk)
  • Numbers alone among the books of the Hebrew Bible recounts the story of a single generation of the nation…in a condition unlike that of any other time. In the earthly events and in the cosmic aspect of both continuous and situational miracles, the wilderness generation is like no other, and the book that tells its story is correspondingly unique. (Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, p. 423)

Your Guide

  1. Have you ever felt as though you were lost in the wilderness? What did you use as your anchor and compass? Did Judaism play a role in helping you find your way?
  2. Is it a contradiction to think that God is the unifying idea around which all Jews gather and at the same time that each one of us sees God differently? Is it a contradiction to assert in the Sh'ma that "God is One" and in the Aleinu that "on that day God will be One"?
  3. Is it possible to be too humble? Is it a sin not to stand up for oneself or not to engage in self-defense? How can we be both humble and created in God's image?
  4. Does having integrity also mean being consistent? Does changing one's mind result in a lack of integrity? How can we change our minds with integrity and not appear inconsistent in the eyes of others?

Rabbi Jonathan Stein is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York, New York.

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