November 19, 2019

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 (, and directs the TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality ( He is author of “Making Prayer Real” and “A Wild Faith” (Jewish Lights).