This is a Dvar Torah I did a couple weeks ago at Dorshei Derech for parashat Bamidbar. As such, it’s probably a little late to be posting this, but since we’re still in the middle of Bamidbar, and because the themes it addresses are feeling pretty relevant right now, I thought I’d put it up anyway.

It has always seemed a little ironic to me that the parsha entitled Bamidbar should be so obsessively concerned with the organization of people and space. For the Biblical authors the midbar (usually translated as “wilderness”) is a complicated place. Most basically, the midbar is the wasteland, the uncharted wilderness outside the boundaries of the community, and even outside of normal space and time. In some ways, one might look at it as the dry-land version of the wild and unpredictable sea that in ancient Near-Eastern mythology represents the primal chaos that must be tamed and held back in order for the relatively sane world we live in to exist.

As a place, or better yet as a state of mind, the midbar has an important role to play in the world of the Bible. On the one hand, it is a dangerous and frightening place. It is a place where the ordinary rules of time and distance don’t seem to apply, a place where somehow it becomes possible for the relatively modest journey from Egypt to Canaan can take forty years. It is a place where the Israelites can wander for ages without encountering another settled people, and yet wicked tribes bent on slaughter or corrupting the values of the community seem to lurk behind every rock.

On the other hand, the open and unbounded nature of the midbar can be a source of profound insight and creativity. It is the place where prophets go to have their most profound encounters with God–where Moses encountered the burning bush, where Elijah heard the “still, small voice” of revelation. It is the place where Sinai stands, where the descendants of Jacob made their pact with the Eternal. It is the place where we had to go in order to become who we are.

It becomes necessary, therefore, to strike a balance between the midbar and the camp, to find a way to live amidst the unbounded highlands of the spirit without becoming disoriented and drifting off, never to be seen again. This perhaps is why the first parsha of Numbers is called Bamidbar–because in its detailed enumeration of people by family, clan and tribe, and in its careful arrangement of space, arraying the twelve tribal camping grounds in a precisely delineated ring around the holy sanctuary like the numbers on a clock, we can catch a glimpse of the ways in which a wandering people made their peace with the wilderness, staking their claim at each new campsite to which God led them and carving out, however temporarily, a patch of order and stability amid the creative chaos of life. These are the terms on which the children of Israel were able to cope with their forty year sojourn in the wilderness, and they are not so different from the terms by which we are able to live today.

In recent weeks, my partner Emily and I have felt like our lives were being turned upside-down as we’ve scrambled to prepare for a series of journeys culminating in our upcoming year in Israel. Recently, Emily was feeling pretty overwhelmed by some packing she was doing. It’s something I’ve been feeling myself–the difficulty of knowing what to bring and what to leave behind, of how to fit your life into the smallest possible space so you can take it with you. In the end, the only way to overcome this anxiety and put the logistical and emotional problem into some kind of perspective was, funnily enough, to make a list.

Like the Israelites in parashat Bamidbar, we get by and face the challenges life throws at us by trying to impose a little order on what can sometimes be a terribly confusing world. In doing so, we can make a little ground for us to stand on, a place from which to reach out and engage with life in all its wild, creative glory.

The questions I put to the kahal when I gave this talk are the same ones I’ll put to you, my readers:

  1. The Israelites ordered their world by family and tribe, and by the organization of space, and by designating roles for the different groups to fulfill in attending to the needs of the community. What are some of the fundamental ways in which you order your life?
  2. In encountering the wilderness of the midbar, sometimes we feel opened up and exhilarated, freed to shake up old patterns and explore new things. Sometimes we feel anxious and unsettled, reaching out desperately for something stable and familiar. What are some ways you’ve reacted to change and the breakdown of old patterns in your life?

And when the Ark set out…

Here’s a little something I never noticed about the Torah service until I was studying it with my colleague Shelley Goldman the other day. At the beginning of the Torah service, when the Torah scroll is being removed from the Ark, we read a biblical passage from Bamidbar (Numbers), Chapter 10, which depicts the Israelites pulling up stakes and setting out on another leg of their journey through the wilderness:

ויהי בנסע הארן ויאמר משה

(Translation: And so it was that when the Ark set out on its journey Moses would say…)

At the end of the Torah service, when the Torah is being put back into the ark, we read a passage from the same perek (chapter):

ובנחה יאמר

(Translation: And when it [i.e. the Ark] came to rest, he [i.e. Moses] would say…)

In other words, the reading of the Torah is bracketed by descriptions of the Ark setting out from one camp site and setting up camp at the next. So in a very real way, when we are reading the Torah, we are supposed to feel as if we are following alongside the Israelites as they travel through the midbar (wilderness), walking along with them and experiencing their journey as our own. One of the interpretations of the biblical commandment of counting the Omer (the “week of weeks” between Passover and Shavuot) is that we are tracing the path of the Israelites from redemption (Passover) to the revelation at Sinai (Shavuot). If in every generation we are to consider ourselves as if we, personally, experienced redemption from Egypt and as if we, personally, were present at the foot of Sinai when God gave Israel the Torah, then the weekly cycle of Torah readings can be seen as the concrete way in which we relive these transformative events over and over again, finding new meaning with each cyclical revolution.