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Parashat Bamidbar: the wilderness speaks


At 4:30 this morning, my alarm went off. The Jerusalem streets below my hotel window were still dark and quiet. I dressed quickly in lightweight clothes and hiking boots, along with a big, floppy hat to protect my tragically pale Ashkenazi complexion from the 95-degree Middle Eastern sun.

Half an hour later, I joined my bus of 40 Angelenos for one of the quintessential Israel experiences — an early morning trek to Masada.

Masada stands more than 1,300 feet above the Judean desert, looking out over the Dead Sea and beyond to the mountains of Jordan — once the land of Moab, our ancestors’ last stop before crossing into the Promised Land. Standing at the top, as my participants snapped endless selfies and our excellent tour guide spoke about Second Temple-period history, my attention wandered to the vista and the thought that it was in landscapes exactly like this one that our People got their start.

From our earliest origins, 3,000 years ago, the Jews were a desert people. Abraham and Sarah left their home in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and headed out across the wilderness to a new land that God would show them. Later on, their descendants would go into Egyptian slavery and then escape from there into the Sinai Desert — entering into a covenant with God at a desolate, rocky mountain and wandering for 40 years through shifting sands before arriving at almost exactly the spot that I spent the morning looking out upon.

This week begins the reading of Bamidbar, the fourth book of the Torah, whose name means “in the wilderness.” Over its 36 chapters tracing the Israelite journey from Mount Sinai to the edge of Canaan, it retells with poignant honesty the realities of the lives of ordinary people making their way through this harsh and beautiful landscape — their constant anxieties about food and water, their skirmishes with other desert tribes, their exhaustion and frequent discontent, and also their powerful faith that somehow propels them through the 40 years. As the book’s title suggests, the wilderness is not only a backdrop to these accounts, but a main character in them.

The Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, also can be read with different vowels as the word for speech, m’daber. The wilderness spoke to our ancient ancestors, teaching them many of the core spiritual principles of Jewish faith.

Inside our comfortable homes it is easy to take many things for granted. But bamidbar, in the wilderness, we learn to notice and count our blessings.

The wilderness teaches humility. In the desert, it is hard to maintain the illusion that we are the center of the universe. Vast expanses of open land, exquisitely carved by millennia of wind and weather, stretch out in all directions. Gigantic night skies fill with uncountable stars. Wild places give us a sense of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement,” an awe at the grandeur of creation and an intuition of the transcendent dimension of life. As anyone who has stood atop a mountain and watched the rising sun can attest, certain landscapes simply make it easier to believe in God.

The wilderness also teaches gratitude. Inside our comfortable homes it is easy to take many things for granted. But bamidbar, in the wilderness, we learn to notice and count our blessings. We take pleasure in every patch of shade, every drink of cool water, every unexpected moment of rest. My teacher, Rabbi Mervin Tomsky, says that gratitude is the engine of all true spirituality. It is a small wonder that a desert people, practiced in the art of gratitude, would bring so many spiritual gifts to the world.

Finally, the wilderness teaches courage. Setting out into the desert is an act of bravery. Our tradition teaches that the majority of the Israelites elected to stay in Egyptian slavery, rather than face the uncertainty of the journey. We, though, are the daughters and sons of those who were prepared to lay it all on the line, who had the faith in God and themselves that it took to go in search of a Promised Land.

This morning, as I looked out at the desert that gave birth to my ancestors, I could almost hear the midbar speaking to me. I wondered at its austere beauty and felt thankful to be surrounded by good friends, for my full canteen, and even for that silly hat. Most of all, I felt a surge of pride to count among my ancestors those who had the chutzpah to walk through this wild place, who taught me through their example that the world expands in proportion to our own courage.

Ha’midbar m’daber — the wilderness still speaks to us, whispering its timeless wisdom, as it taught our ancestors long ago. 

Grace in the wilderness: Parashat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)


The book of Bamidbar, literally “in the desert” or “in the wilderness,” is a hard book to read. Over and over, plagues break out and thousands are killed. The reason, we are told, is a pronounced lack of faith in God. I found the repeated spilling of Israelite blood difficult, to say the least, until Bible scholar Adriane Leveen put it into mythic perspective for me.

Only two of the adults who left Egypt enter the Promised Land, Joshua and Caleb. As Leveen writes, “To destroy Egypt, God must destroy the generation.”

What did the new generation need to learn? The standard interpretation, which is undoubtedly correct, is that the stories in Bamidbar were written to emphasize the Israelites’ dependence on God, Who provided navigation (the pillars of fire and smoke to guide them), food (the manna), protection (the Israelites prevail in battle when Moses raises his arms to the heavens) or lack thereof (the plagues). 

Unfortunately, this is difficult to digest. Why would those who witnessed the plagues against the Egyptians, the parting of the sea, the destruction of the pursuing chariots and God’s appearance at Sinai, lack faith, while their children did not? When I became an Israeli desert guide and walked the desert with Bible in hand, I was further baffled. Many biblical stories show a deep knowledge of the landscape, and the desert itself is sometimes an indispensable actor in the drama, but the stories of Korach and the other rebellions, not to mention the dedication of the alter, the spies, Bilaam, the census and the giving of the laws of the Priests, the Nazirite and the Sota, could have happened anywhere. 

The desert of Bamidbar is like a city dweller would imagine it — desolate and lifeless, relegated to the symbolic role of a mythic cemetery for the former slaves. 

But as we desert dwellers in Southern California know, few deserts are actually desolate and lifeless. There are words for uninhabitable desert in the Hebrew Bible: shemama and yeshimum. The Hebrew root of midbar — daled, bet, resh — means border or threshold. (So, for instance, the entrance to the Temple was called the dvir.)

Midbar specifically refers to grazing lands: not enough water for cultivation, but not an inhospitable wasteland, either. Wilderness for the Israelites was similar to our contemporary definition of wilderness, a place without roads and permanent dwellings, where the farming that enables civilization is not possible. This is the Judean desert between Jerusalem, Hebron and the Dead Sea, where David and the ancient Israelites shepherded their flocks. 

And it is the well-watered, central mountains of Sinai. This makes sense, for the Israelites left Egypt with their flocks.

If we read between the mythic lines of the book of Bamidbar and consult the reality that is the Sinai Desert, we might actually shed more light on the question of why the Generation of Miracles must be inherited by the Generation of the Wilderness.

What does the desert teach its inhabitants? Even if manna is provided, the wilderness is no place for the passive dependency that slavery engenders. Surviving far from civilization takes the kind of rugged independence and self-sufficiency that characterizes those who built the first kibbutzim in Ottoman Palestine. Courage is required. And so is honesty. There is no room for illusions and hubris. Follow the mirage and you will walk to your death.

In the wilderness, one learns how to live at risk without anxiety. I am much more likely to die in a car accident in Los Angeles than on a trail while backpacking in the Sierra. Life everywhere is tenuous, but I pretend otherwise in civilization. I don’t think of the accident rate when I get in the car. Far from hospitals in wilderness, however, I am keenly aware of danger. I respond by paying greater attention. 

The desert forces me to trade my arrogance for humility and listen deeply to the rhythms of weather, animal movements and the seasons. If I know the gifts of the plants and how to discover water, I learn to trust God’s magnificent world. I feel safer than in the city. The Hebrew word for faith, emunah, means trust. In wilderness, I am lost without it. It is a faith that needs no leaps; with every sip of water and morsel of food, I am aware of God’s gifts.

But I also know my limits. Exposed and vulnerable to the storms and the scorpions and countless other dangers, I know that no matter how smart my decisions, I will not be alive tomorrow without grace. The very same landscape that demands my independence makes me keenly aware of my dependence. I don’t imagine God’s care for me; I feel it.

Independent, comfortable with danger and risk, humble, trusting in God’s world, thirsty for God’s grace: The Generation of the Wilderness acquired the qualities needed to meet the challenge of entering the Promised Land. 

Does Judaism ask anything different of us today? 

Rabbi Mike Comins teaches the Making Prayer Real course (MakingPrayerReal.com), and directs the TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality (TorahTrek.org). He is author of “Making Prayer Real” and “A Wild Faith” (Jewish Lights).

A Torah Trek to Find a ‘God Moment’


It’s a Sunday afternoon in midwinter Los Angeles, the sun is sparkling, the temperature is perfect, I’m in one of the most beautiful settings anyone can imagine, and I’m supposed to be talking to God. I’m sitting alone in a lush, grassy field near a rustling brook, mountains surround me, birds are chirping, the smells of nature are excellent and all I can think of is whether I should eat that last bit of leftover lunch that I still have in my backpack.

It is an especially untimely moment to be pondering such a mundane question, because on this day, I’ve joined 14 adults on a daylong excursion in Malibu Creek State Park led by Rabbi Mike Comins, who runs Torah Trek, Spiritual Wilderness Adventures. Whether it’s a one-day exercise for first-timers — like ours is — or a multiday meditative adventure, the idea is to spend time studying Torah, reading, thinking, meditating and seeking a “God experience,” as Comins calls it. We are now at the ultimate moment of the day, the portion called “hitbodedut,” which translates from the Hebrew as “to be alone.”

So I’m on my own, tackling the task of connecting to God, and I’m doing just about anything but. The act of meditation, never my strength, seems particularly contrived for me on this day. Add God to the mix, and my sense of failure multiplies.

A soft wind blows across my face, ruffling my hair ever so slightly. Is that God? A blue jay flits, determined in its search for some unknowable purpose. Is that? I watch as a small biplane flies overhead, and I’m sure that its passengers are feeling more awe than I am, but are they having a close-to-God experience? Up in the sky, do we feel more spiritual? Is it easier to feel God’s presence when we’re above everyone else?

OK, I’ve got about another 20 minutes of solitude to go. So far, I must be completely off track.

I live in the heart of urban Los Angeles in a house that looks out on urban sprawl, with a view, too, of the much-utilized Griffith Park. There is no silence in the city, but I’ve grown used to that. There are trees and a little grass, but not much in my neighborhood. I appreciate the beauty of our Southern California climate, but I rarely feel the transcendence of nature in my daily life. In honor of Tu b’Shevat, in hopes of connecting to a greater sense of our natural world, I’ve come on this hike.

Comins believes that Jewish practice has lost its connection to our ancestors’ roots, which lie, as we all know, in the Torah but also in the connection of the Torah itself to nature, even to the wilderness. Yet, for most of us, as Comins explains at the start of the day, the essential experience of Judaism has become a series of stories and edicts, rather than an experience or a communing. So, through trial and error, and in concert with a small community of fellow spiritual naturalists, he’s attempting to connect the dots.

“If you ask people where they are likely to find a ‘God moment,’ they say in nature,” Comins says in his introduction to the day, which began at 9:30 a.m. with the group of us sitting on dewy grass at the entry to the wilderness park. “If we have this arena where the issue of God is not contrived, and, at the same time, our greatest challenge in Jewish education is finding God, then one plus one is two.”

Comins, 49, grew up in Studio City; he had a classic suburban childhood interspersed with regular family camping trips to Yosemite. When he decided to make aliyah and moved to Israel, he says, he initially considered his backpacking career a thing of the past. He studied to become a Reform rabbi in Israel, and as he sat in front of a library computer screen for days on end, working on his thesis, he says, “I felt less and less God in my life.”

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