In the Wilderness – B'midbar

B'midbar, Numbers 1:1−4:20

D'Var Torah By: Beth Ellen Young

As an educator, I spent much of the last few years of the COVID-19 pandemic trying to navigate CDC advisories and understand vaccine efficacy while designing and redesigning reopening plans for my students. In a coaching session, I was asked to reflect on "how things were going" and realized that I felt I was "in the wilderness," with no clarity on how to move forward. Should I design online programs or in-person programs? Should I meet with students inside or outside? I found conflicting guidance for analyzing risks to make "safe" decisions for myself and my students, and I felt a tremendous responsibility to safely shepherd the families and children in our educational programs through this time.

This week's Torah portion and the book it comes from are called B'midbar, or, in the wilderness. The title comes from the first meaningful word in the text, in contrast to a title that is a summation of the text's core ideas. In the case of B'midbar, both ring true, for the Israelites in the Torah as well as for people today.

What does it mean to be "in the wilderness"? For our Israelite ancestors, the wilderness seems to have been the unknown. It was a liminal space between what they knew and the Promised Land that they had heard about. It was a place where they wandered. For Moses, the burden of guiding the Israelites through the unknown led him to frustration, anger, and depression.

In this case, being in the wilderness does not seem to be desirable. I particularly like the Lexico definition of wilderness as "an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region." But if we look through the Torah, we learn there is something else about being in the wilderness that can serve as an opportunity for us today. In Exodus, it was in the wilderness where Moses found God. Moses guided his father-in-law's flock "into the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God." (B'midbar 3:1) This is the location where the bush burned and was not consumed. After leaving this wilderness, Moses' life moved in a new direction.

Joseph's life also moved in a new direction when he emerged from the wilderness. For when Reuben pleaded with his brothers not to kill Joseph, he encouraged them to "cast him into that pit out in the wilderness." (Gen 37:22). Joseph's destiny was instantly changed when he was left in the wilderness rather than killed.

Earlier in Genesis (21:14), Hagar was "wandering in the wilderness" until she heard a messenger of God. It was in the wilderness where her and Ishmael's fortunes changed. They also emerged from the wilderness with an altered destiny.

It seems from these three encounters that while the wilderness is scary and unknown, it can also be a place with the potential to find God and Divine purpose. But that doesn't happen without an openness to finding it. We don't all experience the wilderness in the same ways - based on our experiences and stories it may be easier or harder to be open to finding Divine connection. Not every Torah story that takes place in the wilderness leads the protagonist to a new sense of purpose, but the possibility is always there.

As we each continue to navigate our unique COVID wilderness, may we be open to hearing the messengers of God, seeing the new opportunities in front of us, and emerging with a greater sense of purpose.

Originally published: