This Week in Torah
I have always found it odd that the portion entitled Bamidbar should be so obsessively concerned with the organization of people and space. For the authors of the Bible, the midbar (usually translated as “wilderness”) is a complicated place. On the most basic level, the midbar is the wasteland, the uncharted wilderness outside the boundaries of the community, and even outside of normal space and time.
As a place, or better yet, as a state of mind, the midbar has an important role to play in the biblical world. On the one hand, it is a dangerous and frightening place, a place where the ordinary rules of time and distance don’t seem to come into play; a place where somehow it becomes possible for the relatively modest journey from Egypt to Canaan to 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 killing or corrupting the values of the community seem to hide behind every rock.
On the other hand, the open and limitless 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 then, to strike a balance between the midbar and the camp, to find a way to live amidst the absolute highlands of the spirit without becoming unsettled and drifting off, never to be seen again. This, perhaps, is why the first portion of Numbers is called Bamidbar – because in its detailed counting of people by family, clan and tribe, and in its careful arrangement of the 12 tribes into camps situated around the holy tabernacle, we can catch a glimpse of the ways in which a wandering people made their peace with the wilderness, carving out, however temporarily, a patch of order and stability amid the 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.
As you know, I am about to embark on a new journey as I take my place as one of four chaplain residents chosen to participate in the prestigious year-long residency program at the Cleveland Clinic. I see this as my personal midbar, in that it is new, unfamiliar territory for me. I have conflicting emotions – I feel anxious and unsettled because I am shaking up and changing my life, but mostly I am excited and exhilarated as I know the experiences that are ahead of me will enrich both me and my cantorate.