Since I am the rabbi of a synagogue called Beth Knesset Bamidbar, Parashat B'midbar has a special place in my heart. The Hebrew word midbar means "desert" or "wilderness," and living at the edge of the Mojave Desert, as I do, I have acquired a great appreciation for themidbar. In this week's Torah portion, the first in the Book of Numbers, the Israelites prepare themselves for their march through the midbar: "Adonai spoke to Moses in the wilderness [b'midbar] of Sinai." (Numbers 1:1)
The wilderness is a complex place for the Israelites. It is where they coalesce into a people, transform themselves from slaves to free people, rebel against and obey God, and receive the Torah as well as severe punishment. The wilderness experience is the crucible for Israel's self-consciousness as a people in covenant with God. Hence an intimate, powerful connection exists between the wilderness and Judaism.
What is it about the wilderness that evokes such an intense spiritual response on the part of the Israelites? After all, God can be experienced in a variety of natural settings. For example, the majesty of an old-growth forest and the rhythm of the ocean's waves inspire us with reverence and awe. The wilderness, however, is different: It is a place of danger and desolation, so void of distractions that starkness and focus, rather than mellowness and at-oneness, are the rule. The desert represents the opposite of civilization because it is a place in which social conventions have no role and the place to which some of our greatest prophets, like Moses and Elijah, fled to encounter God outside the confines of society.
The Babylonian Talmud states: "When a person makes himself [or herself] similar to the desert, Torah is given?as a gift." (Nedarim 55a) The significance of this expression of Jewish asceticism is that in order to learn and live Torah, we must strip ourselves of physical comfort and personal luxuries. Rabbi Abraham Twerski directs us to Pirkei Avot 6:4, in which it is written: "This is the way of Torah study: Eat bread with salt, drink water by measure, sleep on the bare ground, and endure a life of hardship while you toil in the Torah."
Even as we revel in our soaring Dow Jones and NASDAQs, tune in to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and get in on the latest IPO, the Torah reminds us that we can encounter God most effectively when we jettison our material encumbrances. The Torah is countercultural, challenging our easy assumptions and shaking us from our complacency. It provokes us to consider the following: Does our wealth obstruct Jewish spirituality? Do our physical possessions subvert genuine religious fulfillment? Does the covetousness upon which our free market economy depends undermine our quest for God? Perhaps Isaiah says it best when he counsels: "Clear a road in the wilderness for the Eternal One!" (Isaiah 40:3) The arduous path to God often runs through an unfamiliar place that requires self-denial, self-discipline, and self-sacrifice, but clearly, it is worth taking.
What's in a name? Rabbi Alan Henkin suggests that this week's portion's name, B'midbar, alludes to a deep and important layer of meaning in the Torah: The desert is not just a place but a spiritual state, a place in which an openness to God and God's message can be attained. What makes the desert so different? Its austerity: There are no distractions in the desert. Life and death, beauty and desolation-the ultimate foils for God are ever present.
But what about us? What can we learn from B'midbar? How can we gain the acute awareness of God that the desert fosters? Perhaps another name, Numbers, the English title for the book that this Torah portion introduces, offers a clue. Why is this book called Numbers? It is because the focus of the portion is numbers or, more accurately, a census ordered by God in the opening verses, the result of which fills the next four chapters. Why all these numbers? Why does the Torah, which is often so terse, spend so much time on the details of a census? Rashi, the great rabbi and medieval commentator, suggests that the accounting is an act of love: "Because they [the Israelites] are dear to God, Adonai counts them every now and again." (Rashi on Numbers 1:2, Silverman translation) Thus, according to Rashi, this census is about appreciation, a sort of divine caress, expressing God's love for us and renewing a sense of who we are in God's eyes. Counting is a metaphor for paying attention. It is not about the numbers but about the awareness that paying close attention generates.
Rashi provides us with a bridge back to the desert, helping us apprehend how we can replicate the austere pallet of the desert so that we may see the vibrant colors of life, always there but too often obscured by the distractions of the every day.
Questions for Discussion
- What prevents us from seeing the truths in our lives?
- What kind of accounting must we make in order to be reminded of God in ourselves and our surroundings?
For Further Reading
A Torah Commentary for Our Time, Harvey J. Fields, UAHC Press, New York, NY
Rabbi George Gittleman is the rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, California.
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