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The Weekly Commentary of JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning

Parashat B'midbar 5763
Numbers 1:1 - 4:20
May 31, 2003    29 Iyar 5763

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Lewis Warshauer , JTS Rabbinic Fellow

Eden was a well–watered place. The Bible and science agree that in the beginning, the world was moist and fluid. Unlike science, the Bible is literature, and literature with a message. It embodies themes and concerns itself with the interplay of those themes.

Two of the contrasting themes in the Bible are water and its life–giving power, versus drought and its life–stopping power. Water can also be destructive, as in the great flood of No·ah's time. Too much water is bad; lack of water is never good. The unfolding of the narrative of the Torah can be seen as the search for water in a world after Eden.

Abraham settles in Canaan; his son Isaac digs wells; his son Jacob leaves for Egypt because of famine. Jacob's descendants, liberated from their bondage in Egypt, must cross the sea in order to leave Egypt fully. The people then arrive at Sinai — not just Mount Sinai, but Midbar Sinai, the wilderness of Sinai. Wilderness is a place of rocks and earth, but little or no water.

Much of the rest of the Torah records the people's wanderings in the wilderness and their search for water. The Book of Numbers' Hebrew name is Bemidbar — in the wilderness. It was a place where the bleakness of the landscape echoed the barren prospects of those who traveled there:

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy roads
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
(T.S. Eliot: "The Waste Land")

Eliot was writing not about the travels of the Israelites but, more likely, the interior journey of an individual. Yet the two are related. What the Israelites experienced in the wilderness is akin to what an individual often undergoes in his or her life journey: the search for fertility and growth and the many hard and dry places along the way and in between. One of the great challenges to the life–voyager is to believe that that the wilderness places and wilderness years are not the end of the journey, but the staging ground for finding the waters of renewal and redemption. It is a belief that might have to defy years of one's own experience. It means accepting the possibility that a God powerful and benevolent enough to lead a nation out of the wilderness, might do likewise for an individual. If this is so, the words of Isaiah speak not only to those of his time but to us also:

The poor and needy seek water and there is none
Their tongue is parched with thirst
I the Lord will answer them
I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them
I will open up streams on the bare hills,
Springs amid the valleys
I will turn the wilderness into lakes
Dry land into sources of water.
(Isaiah 41:17–18)

Shabbat shalom.

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.