September 18, 2019

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.