Friday, June 7, 2019 /4 Sivan, 5779
Parashat B’midbar Numbers 1:1-4:20
“In the wilderness…” What a great opening phrase!
So begins our fourth book of the Torah, rendered in English Numbers, and in Hebrew, Bamidbar, or “In the wilderness.”
Yes, our forebears spent forty years trekking in the wilderness, making their way from Egypt and slavery, to the Land of Canaan and our own freedom and peoplehood. Yet, that journey took place not on interstate highways, or five-star cruise ships. Rather, our journey to our Land was made through some tough and forbidding wilderness.
Many commentaries have argued, brilliantly, for the value of traversing wilderness to arrive at our place of promise. It offers a physical and a psychological separation from there to here, allowing for the social transformation from slaves to people of freedom and destiny. As well, it toughened us up, as we not only encountered privation and hardship, but we were forced to fight brigands and enemy armies as we made our way to our new home.
But, more, the wilderness is a place without urban or communal distractions. There is nothing there but… there. For a people in the process of becoming, in a total nascency, dwelling and trekking in a wide open, undeveloped desert wilderness allowed us to focus on becoming God’s people. We received the Torah on a vacant mountain, with nothing to see but other, distant peaks and uninhabited valleys. We could learn to live by God’s commands and devote ourselves to study and practice of ethics and Jewish law. We could leave the idolatry of Egypt and foreign customs behind in a place where there were no competing ideologies or religious systems to undermine us along our way.
So, why begin our national history in a wilderness? It was a perfect place, and a vital opportunity to mature and evolve into Am Yisrael – the People of Israel. And, we took it!
Rabbi Doug Kohn