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B’midbar: In the Wilderness

Va’yedaber YHVH el Moshe b’midbar Sinai b’ohel mo’ed b’echad la’chodesh ha’sheni bashanah ha’shenit l’tzeitam me’eretz Mitzrayim. 

YHVH spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month of the second year since leaving Egypt. (Numbers 1:1)

So begins the fourth book of the Torah. Its English name is the Book of Numbers, from the Greek Arithmoi, based on the elaborate census-taking that make up several of the book’s chapters. But the Hebrew name is B’midbar, which means “In the Wilderness.” It is a much more descriptive title, in my opinion, since the entire narrative takes place in the wilderness, covering the last 39 of the 40 years of the Israelites’ tumultuous wanderings.

Our Sages engineered the cycle of Torah readings so that this first portion of the book, also titled B’midbar, would always fall on the Shabbat just prior to the Festival of Shavuot, and indeed Shavuot begins this Saturday night. Shavuot is the Festival that marks our receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Why did the Sages intentionally connect this portion B’midbar with the receiving of Torah?

Our Sages are very clear that the Torah had to be given in the wilderness. The wilderness is land that belongs to no one. It is untracked, and undomesticated. In order to hear the voice of God we must find a way to clear our minds of the details and involvements of our daily lives. One way to do this is by heading out into the wilderness. I am an avid hiker, and I know well the restorative nature of spending time wandering in the wild. My thoughts gradually slow down and the din of my inner preoccupations diminishes until I am able to hear the world wordlessly speaking to me. I inevitably return to my very mapped-out life feeling clearer and renewed. Sh’ma, listen. It makes perfect sense that our ancestors would see the wilderness as the place to go to hear the voice of God, both in its sublime stillness and in its overwhelming grandeur.

But shifting our location in space is not the only way to create a “wilderness area.” If we can give up our ownership and domestication of time, that is, carve out holy time in which we pause from our work we can also create a “wild” zone, in which our busy minds might be stilled so that we might hear God’s voice. This is, of course, the idea of Shabbat and Holy Days. Even a relationship can at times become a blessed wandering in the wilderness, if we are able even for a moment to set aside our expectations and opinions about the other person, and instead wander into the great mystery of their eyes and breath and the burning bush of their shimmering presence.

The Hebrew name for wilderness, midbar, draws us even deeper into this understanding. In Hebrew grammar, if you take a verb and place the prefix mi- before it, the resulting word mean, “the place where that activity happens.” For example, שכנ SH-K-N means “dwell”, and משכן MiSHKaN means “dwelling place”, and in the Torah is the term for the sanctuary where God’s presence dwells. קדש K-D-SH means “sanctify” or “holy”, and מקדש MiKDaSH is the “place of holiness”, and the Bet Hamikdash is the Hebrew term for the ancient holy sanctuary in Jerusalem. In a more mundane vein, טבח TaBaCH is a cook” or a chef; מטבח MiTBaCH is a kitchen. There are numerous examples.

With this grammatical form in mind, midbar reveals a curious etymology: דבר D-B-R means “speak”. מדבר MiDBaR therefore must mean “the place of speech”, or perhaps “the place of speaking.” Does that mean that our ancestors understood the wilderness as the place we go to hear God speak with us? I can’t prove it, but it seems right to me. The place, or state of consciousness in which we might hear God’s voice is the place we do not control, the place we try to leave undisturbed by our ambitions, the place where we are humbled by creation’s grandeur, the place we do not try to domesticate with our comfortable categories. It can be a terrifying place, because at least for a time we leave our comforts and our shelter behind and walk vulnerably into the unknown. This is where the Great Mystery speaks to us, and this is where the deeper meaning of life is wordlessly revealed to us: the Voice of God. Our tradition teaches that even though the Children of Israel all heard that Voice together when they stood at Mount Sinai – the moment we celebrate and hope to recreate as we celebrate Shavuot this weekend – that Voice has never ceased. It was, is and will be always reverberating through the cosmos, great and awesome, intimate and close by, ready to impart a sense of renewed meaning and purpose to our parched souls. Our challenge is to make the time and space in our lives to venture out into the midbar and practice listening.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach – a Joyous Shavuot,

Rabbi Jonathan