Parashah Ponderings

Making it through the wilderness

Bemidbar / פרשת במדבר
Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

I posted this devar Torah a number of years ago, but today I read it with new eyes. If feels to me that our nation and, indeed, the whole world are traversing a vast wilderness. We seem to be confronting so many forces beyond our control (or not) and not doing a very good job of it. Ukraine, global warming, gun violence, white supremacy, homelessness, etc., etc. Of course, all these things are the fault of misguided human beings, but they have taken on a life of their own and so many of us feel we have little power to effect change. It’s like we’re wandering through a wilderness facing all kinds of hazards we have never encountered.

I wish we were doing a better job of navigating our collective human journey. As a nation and as a community of nations, we are not working together to face enormous challenges. Just the opposite. Political and social divisions grow deeper and deeper, preventing us from providing the care we all need and coming up with the creative solutions our times demand. Nor are we as individuals doing the inner work of examining our assumptions and habits and asking how we might do a better job of taking note of “the other” and coming to their aid.

Yet, this book of the Torah, Bemidbar, gives me hope. We know the Israelites eventually made it to Eretz Yisrael, though not unscathed. The whole generation that left Egypt had to perish during the 40 years of wandering before the new generations could enter the land and begin anew. But begin anew they did. 

Every now and then we’ll read of people from opposite sides of “the aisle” coming together to solve problems. Every now and then we’ll read about people who are engaged in great, selfless acts for the benefit of humankind. Sometimes we even meet these people in our own communities. If we would but lift up these sparks and say, “Amen!” we could make this difficult journey through the wilderness so much more joyous and enriching, despite the challenges beyond our control that will always be there.

With this week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar, we begin a new book of the Torah, also named Bemidbar. Bemidbar depicts Israel’s trials during the 40 years of wandering “in the wilderness” (bemidbar, in Hebrew) following their exodus from Egypt. The book also contains multiple censuses of the Israelites. Reflecting this latter focus on counting people, the English title for Bemidbar is Numbers. The relationship between these two themes — the wilderness and the censuses — is full of meaning.

The reading begins:

On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying…(Numbers 1:1)

The French medieval commentator Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam, 1085-1174) asks why the Torah here specifies where God spoke to Moses. He posits that the location of God’s speech adds clarity. After all, God had spoken to Moses and Israel elsewhere just a year earlier: “All of the divine utterances that were spoken during the first year, before the Tabernacle was set up, are labeled as having been spoken ‘on Mount Sinai.’ But once the Tabernacle was set up, on the 1st of Nisan of the second year, we find not ‘on Mount Sinai’ but ‘in the wilderness of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting.’”[1] In other words, now that Israel has the Tabernacle, God can speak to them as they wander through the wilderness. Beforehand God could only be present at Mount Sinai. God is now portable.

But why the emphasis on the midbar, wilderness, itself? Of the many explanations for this, I am drawn to two in particular. One sees the wilderness, both a challenging place for human survival and a spectacular show of nature, as the perfect crucible for Israel’s maturation. The Israeli historian Nachman Ran imagines that after Israel’s centuries-long period of enslavement in Egypt, they needed to gel as a nation and to grow spiritually. “To a people whose entire living generation had seen only the level lands of Egypt, the Israelite march into this region of mountain magnificence, with its sharp and splintered peaks and profound valleys, must have been a perpetual source of astonishment and awe. No nobler school could have been conceived for training a nation of slaves into a nation of freemen or weaning a people from the grossness of idolatry to a sense of grandeur and power of the God alike of Nature and Mind.” Indeed, “in the midbar they become free human beings responsible to God and to themselves for every choice they make.”[2]

Another interpretation likens the landscape of the midbar to “the psychological and spiritual realms of human existence.” The 20th century Israeli scholar and poet Pinhas Peli believes there is a “‘wilderness’ within each person, a ‘desert’ where selfish desires rule, where one looks out only for one’s needs. No person is ever satisfied in the desert. There is constant complaining about lack of food and water, the scorching hot days and bitter cold nights. Anger, frustration, disagreements, and hunger prevail… The Torah is given in the desert… ‘to conquer and curb the demonic wilderness within human beings.’… The lesson here is that, ‘if human beings do not conquer the desert, it may eventually conquer them. There is no peaceful coexistence between the two.’”[3]

These understandings of the midbar — the first as Israel’s training ground to serve as God’s “chosen people” and the second as a symbol of the treacherous landscape within each of us — leads me to the next verses in our reading:

Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. (Numbers 1:2-3)

What emerges from the census, we learn later, is the creation of an army, on one hand, and a workforce to tend to the Tabernacle, on the other hand. God, thus, provides Israel with a mechanism literally to put its camp in order so that it can survive the tough trek ahead. With no such order, the nation and its connection to God would be doomed.

On a symbolic level, the census represents the moral, spiritual and physical preparation necessary to be able to make something of God’s revelation. Without some kind of ordered society, without a higher purpose, and without personal accountability, Israel would not have been able to actualize the lessons of Torah. They would have been too divided, distracted, and self-interested to build the kind of caring world that God envisioned. What kind of “light unto the nations” would Israel have been if it was at war with itself, unable to know right from wrong?

What we learn from this week’s Torah portion is that in order to bring calm to a world in chaos, we must first take care of business at home and within. Judaism places a premium on shalom bayit, family harmony, partly because it recognizes that the family is fertile ground for sowing the values of Torah and Jewish peoplehood. But family isn’t the only fertile ground. Individual souls and communities, too, are places where values must be allowed to flourish. Without tilling the soil, without bringing order to it, nothing except weeds and wildflowers will grow. Under such circumstances, beauty is left to chance. We can’t leave the creation of a just, compassionate world to chance, however. Instead, let us strive to bring order to the wilderness.

[1] Michael Carasik, The Commentator’s Bible: Numbers, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2011), p. 3.

[2] From Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times: Volume 3 Numbers and Deuteronomy, (New York: UAHC Press, 1993), pp. 9-10.

[3] Ibid., pp. 11-12.

Parashah Ponderings

Israel’s Travels: A Lesson in Appreciation and Gratitude

Parashat Masei / פרשת מסעי

Torah Portion: Numbers 33:1 – 36:13

(I will be on vacation with my family for the next two weeks and will return with a lesson on Parashat Eikev around August 14th. Until then, you may read each week’s parashah and a selection of commentaries at join me in praying for peace and security for the State of Israel, its citizens and the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, as well as for an end to suffering among the people of Gaza.)

This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Masei, begins with a decidedly dry listing of Israel’s “marches” during their 40-year journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Moses records in writing each of Israel’s 42 resting places without much comment, save a few geographical reference points: “They set out from X and encamped at Y.” There isn’t a single account of what happened to Israel in any of these places! Many commentators, therefore, wonder what the Torah is trying to teach us by the inclusion of this sparse travelogue.

Two responses to this puzzle lead us toward an appreciation of both the simple and miraculous in life: the everyday gifts, such as food, water, and rest, that are critical for survival as well as the extraordinary moments, such as birth, the discovery of great insights, the escape from places of despair. The daily prayers of the Jewish people condition an awareness of and gratitude for all such gifts. The majority of us who don’t pray on a daily basis, however, must find our own ways of being mindful and grateful. In either case, appreciation and gratitude are Jewish attitudes whose import is conveyed in our earliest sacred literature.

The preeminent 11th century French commentator, Rashi, cites an early 11th century scholar known as Moses haDarshan, in suggesting that the point of the recording the marches here at the end of the Book of Numbers is “to demonstrate how kindly God acted toward the Israelites. Even though God had decreed that God would drag the Israelites endlessly through the wilderness, you cannot say that they were simply dragged from place to place for 40 years with no respite.”[1] In 40 years, Israel stopped 42 times, meaning they enjoyed extended periods, even years, when they weren’t marching at all. Our sages recognized that God allowed our ancestors to rest along the way from Egypt to Israel.

The journey entailed much more than year after year of moving large numbers of people and their belongings, punctuated by warfare, hunger and thirst. In their drive to reach Israel, our ancestors also were able to establish something like a normal way of life, build community ties, and grow their families. God granted them rest, too, not just on Shabbat but in between marches. Thus, while the 40 year period of wandering was first presented by God as a punishment against the generation of Egypt, who doubted God would be with them when it came time to take possession of the land,[2] in reality, the years of wandering offered experiences that made the journey more bearable and better prepared Israel for its future as a nation in its own land. Thank God for all theses little things that largely go unstated in the Torah.

What of all the miracles that God performed for Israel in their years of wandering: the manna, the quail, the water from rocks, the victories in battle against all odds? Maimonides, in his 12th century work Guide for the Perplexed, argues that the list of marches is really intended to remind future generations of all these wonders that God performed for Israel. Overtime, without a record of Israel’s route, descendants of Israel and the other nations might come to think that God led Israel through “settled areas or in places where agriculture was possible” and diminish the role of the Divine in supporting Israel on its difficult journey.[3] Moses, however, ensures that future generations will know that without the grace of God Israel would not have been able to survive the 40-year sojourn. Maimonides indicates the Torah itself shows that the places recorded by Moses were unsuitable for human habitation.[4] They were isolated, arid, inhospitable places. The logical observer could only conclude that God provided for Israel all those years.

Both sets of commentary – one emphasizing the gift of respite, the other Divine grace – teach that this odd recital of place names reminds us to appreciate and give thanks for all that God did for our ancestors. Rashi and Moses haDarshan draw our attention to a detail that we might otherwise overlook, that Israel wasn’t constantly on the move. Rather, Israel enjoyed periods of rest and recuperation on their way to the Holy Land. On the other hand, Maimonides, as cited by Nachmanides in his commentary, wants us to remember that God did great things for Israel to enable them to survive those 40 years. Maimonides wants to preempt any naysayers who would one day deny God’s intervention on behalf of Israel.

The lesson for us is clear. Just as God was present for our ancestors in both the mundane and the miraculous, God is present for us. After all, our ancestors’ God is our God and is as present for us in our day as in theirs. In the years between the Exodus and entering the Land of Israel, God saw that Israel’s need to rest and to grow as a people was tended to and that, when times got tough, Israel would have the wherewithal to make it through.

Don’t we have similar needs? Everyday we benefit from God’s goodness through the presence of things we tend to take for granted: clean air, fresh water, sleep. From time to time we also face tremendous challenges and experience life-altering events: recovery from illness, witnessing the birth of a great-grandchild, discovering new truths about our universe. Let us truly appreciate each and every one of these gifts and find our own ways to give thanks. If you need help, don’t hesitate to engage in Judaism’s ancient practice of prayer.

[1] Michael Carasik. The Commentators’ Bible: Numbers. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2011), p. 238.

[2] Numbers 14:20-35.

[3] Carasik, p. 238. Nachmanides here cites Maimonides.

[4] accessed 7/23/2014.