Entering the wilderness
Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
This week we begin the fourth book of Torah. In English, it is “Numbers,” referring to the complex census-taking that dominates the first several chapters of the book. In Hebrew, it is called “Bamidbar,” meaning “In the wilderness.” As with all five books of Torah, its first parashah shares the same title as the book: “Bamidbar.”
The book of Numbers picks up the story where Exodus ended: The Israelites are camped at Mt Sinai. They have renewed their covenant with God; built the Mishkan, God’s portable home; ordained Aaron and the other priests who are to serve; and have welcomed the Holy Presence, in the form of a guiding cloud, into its new dwelling.
As Parshat Bamidbar opens, we learn that the Israelites are preparing to set out toward the land of Canaan. They will journey through Midbar Sinai: the Wilderness of Sinai. Because they may face many obstacles, they must be ready to overcome them. They take a census of all able-bodied men among the people, and a census of the priests who will serve and protect the sacred Mishkan.
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The Israelites know that the Midbar Sinai will be a place of physical danger, where nothing is familiar and there are no markers. What they don’t yet realize is that a midbar is also a place of spiritual uncertainty, where one can lose track of space and time; it is a confused state of mind, in which faith and trust are tested. The Israelites will experience both during their journey. In the Bible, those divisions lead to anger and rebellion, challenging the authority of the leaders, Moses and Aaron, and endangering the very existence of the Israelite people.
In our own day, too, people are no longer sure whether they can believe what leaders are telling them. We have seen deep distrust of our leaders lead to an insurrection that challenged the structure of our society. For the last three-plus years, during a deadly pandemic and increasing weather extremes, our families, our communities — our whole world — have been wandering in a wilderness. We are living bamidbar!
How do we find our way? The Israelites had the cloud Presence to guide them through their wilderness. What can guide us through ours? In “Bewilderments,” her mind-opening discussion of the Book of Numbers, Torah scholar Avivah Zornberg points to the cryptic Midrashic statement: “Ein midbar ela dibbur” (“Wilderness is nothing but utterance”) (Shemot Rabbah 2:5). Building on this, Zornberg suggests interpreting the word bamidbar as “b’midaber” ( “in, while, or with speaking”).
The very first words of the parashah are “Vayidaber YHVH el Moshe …” / “God spoke to Moses …” The entire parashah is one long set of instructions spoken to Moses by God: how to organize the Israelites for the journey, how to record each census and who should be included, and what responsibilities each person will have on the march, according to their skills and abilities. God speaks, and Moses and Aaron listen carefully — and act.
Perhaps our own path forward lies in speaking with — and really listening to — each other. Sometimes we are the speaker, the one in charge, giving information or instructing others; other times we are the active listener, offering advice or being given a task to carry out. Depending on circumstances, our responsibilities can change, too: acting for our own safety or health, or to protect others; trying to achieve a personal goal, or working with others to achieve a collective goal.
As we travel on together through our midbar, what do you feel called to do? With whom might you speak to help us move forward? Where are you most needed? PJC
Rabbi Doris J. Dyen is the spiritual leader for the independent Makom HaLev community. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.