This week we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar (titled in English as Numbers). Bamidbar in Hebrew means ‘in the desert’. The English title was apparently taken from the second verse of the book which deals with the numbering of the tribes.
However, the essence of this book is truly captured in this one word, Bamidbar, for the book is about the long sojourn in the desert, and walks us through the winding route taken by the children of Israel on their way to the Promised Land. We remember that this prolonged route was not part of the original plan, but resulted from the sin of the spies. At that point it was decreed that the generation of the spies would wander in the desert, and ultimately perish among the vast dunes of sand.
And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, “How long shall I bear this evil congregation, which murmur against me? I have heard the murmurings of the People of Israel, which they murmur against me. Say to them, As truly as I live, said the Lord, as you have spoken in my ears, so will I do to you. Your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness; and all who were counted of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, who have murmured against me, shall by no means come into the land I have sworn to settle you therein, save Caleb the son of Yephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones, which you said would be prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which you have despised. But as for you, your carcasses, they shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years, and bear your backslidings, until your carcasses are wasted in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied the land, forty days, each day for a year, shall you bear your iniquities, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.” (Numbers 14:26-34)
Perhaps we would be led to believe that had this defiant sin not taken place, the desert would not be a part of our collective consciousness. However, from the very beginning of the process of the Exodus, Moses is told that the desert, the wilderness, is the destination for the religious experience.
Numerous times in the “negotiations” with Pharaoh the interchange focused on the subject of the desert. When the congregation finally arrives at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, again the desert is mentioned:
In the third month, when the people of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai. For they had departed from Rephidim, and had come to the desert of Sinai, and had camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount. (Exodus 19:1-2)
The desert is the scene for the giving of the Torah as it also was a crucial element of the experience of Moses at the Burning Bush. Moses was drawn like a magnet to the place of spiritual revelation, yet we sometimes wonder at the choice of the desert as place of spirituality.
When man was created he was placed in a garden; Eden was a beautiful place, with flowing rivers, lush flora, pleasing to the eye. A more pastoral setting cannot be imagined. And, most importantly, the Spirit of God permeated the entire expanse. Work was unknown, struggle undiscovered. Man and beast lived in unity, idyllic and ideal – paradise.
The desert seems like the very antithesis of Gan Eden: barren and empty, either too warm or too cold, desolate, lifeless. It seems that the only thing in common between the two was the snake for the Torah describes the desert of the Israelite wanderings as a:
…Great and terrible wilderness, where there were venomous serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water. (Deut. 8:15)
And this is the epicenter of spirituality?
In the Garden of Eden, when man walked with God, there was no need to work or toil. But man destroyed that world, he hid from his Maker, causing a terrible exile which has lasted through the millennia.
But in the desert where supplies are scarce and survival appears doubtful is the perfect place to find God.
Who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, where were venomous serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought you water out of the rock of flint. Who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers knew not, that He might humble you, and that He might test you, to do you good in the end. And you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth.” And you shall remember the Lord your God; for He is who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day. (Deut. 8:15-18)
The objective of the desert experience was for jaded man to develop more trust in God. The Cloud of Glory, perhaps more than any other symbol, represented their special relationship to God in the desert. Upon the lifting of the cloud they traveled; upon the settling of the cloud they encamped. The cloud was their constant companion, representing Divine faithfulness and care.
And on the day that the Tabernacle was erected the cloud covered the Tabernacle, the Tent of the Testimony; and at the evening there was upon the Tabernacle like the appearance of fire, until the morning. So it was always; the cloud covered it by day, and the appearance of fire by night. And when the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, then after that the People of Israel journeyed; and in the place where the cloud abode, there the People of Israel pitched their tents. At the commandment of the Lord the People of Israel journeyed, and at the commandment of the Lord they camped; as long as the cloud abode upon the Tabernacle they rested in their tents. And when the cloud remained long upon the Tabernacle many days, then the People of Israel kept the charge of the Lord, and journeyed not. And so it was, when the cloud was a few days upon the Tabernacle; according to the commandment of the Lord they abode in their tents, and according to the commandment of the Lord they journeyed. … At the commandment of the Lord they rested in the tents, and at the commandment of the Lord they journeyed; they kept the charge of the Lord, at the commandment of the Lord by the hand of Moses.(Numbers 9:15-23)
And the People of Israel took their journeys out of the wilderness of Sinai; and the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran. (Numbers 10:12)
Not only did the cloud set the itinerary, but it was intrinsically related to the Tabernacle, always hovering above the structure. For nearly forty years, the cloud and the Tabernacle visibly accompanied the Jews in their travels.
On a contemporary level, we may not literally wander in a physical desert today to achieve an intimacy with Hashem, but certainly everyone who strives for holiness has at one time or another a ‘desert’ experience which often seems unpleasant and difficult yet is designed to yield the same result in us – a profound trust and closeness to our God.
In Tune with Torah this week = recognizing our ‘desert’ times as gifts from on high to spur us on to deeper intimacy with God and greater trust in His all-encompassing faithfulness. Welcome to the desert! Shabbat Shalom.