The Wilderness Speaks
The summer after graduating college, I went backpacking with a friend in North Cascades National Park in Washington. The sun shone brightly on Lake Chelan as we were ferried deep into the woods, landing at the little outpost of Stehekin to begin our weeklong trek. It was a euphoric beginning, but soon both the weather and my mood grew darker. Late one afternoon we were hiking up a long ridge when the icy drizzle became a frigid downpour. A tender spot on my foot blossomed into a painful blister, and each step was agony. It was getting dark, we hadn’t found a place to make camp, and my friend was hiking just a bit faster than I could. I fantasized that beyond the next towering Sitka spruce we’d find bowls of hot soup and a warm, dry tent waiting for us, but instead it was just more wet woods, cold rain, and painful feet. This was a miserable moment, the kind when one obsessively asks: Why did I ever leave home?
When we enter the tortured world of Numbers, better named in Hebrew as Bemidbar—In the wilderness—I recall the discomfort of that journey and my inclination to self-pity. There is quite a bit of complaining in this book, as the Israelites schlep through the wilderness, making mistakes that lengthen their journey and deepen their problems. Yet the wilderness is also their place of revelation. True, its discomforts and exertions bring the people’s character flaws to the surface, but they also discern there the voice of God and their national mission. This book begins in the wilderness but ends on the banks of the River Jordan, across from Jericho. The people who arrive at that point are battle-hardened from the journey, but what has become of their spirit?
Later books of the Bible present conflicting reports of Israel in the wilderness. Jeremiah (2:2) speaks fondly of the young love of Israel for God, like a bride following her groom through a wild land. But the book of Psalms (95:10) recalls the desert trek as 40 years of incessant complaining. Both accounts appear to be true. The desert was a place of terror and complaint, but also a place of inspiration and love. Perhaps the challenges of the wilderness are a necessary discomfort for the revelations of the spirit. Second Isaiah, the prophet who seeks to reboot the covenant after the catastrophic destruction and exile, begins his words, “A voice cries out in the wilderness: ‘Make a path for the Lord!’” (Isa. 40:3). The wilderness speaks—hamidbar medaber—and generations of Jews have returned to its rugged isolation to discover the divine presence.
In the rabbinic period our ancestors did not rhapsodize so much about nature and the wilderness. Their spiritual life was more urban. Yet in Pirkei Avot (6:2), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi claims that every day a voice goes out from Mount Horeb (Sinai), crying, “Woe to those creatures who have contempt for Torah.” This is a curious statement—why would the divine voice continue to ring out in the wilderness, even when people are no longer present? In a midrash, Rabbi Levi explains by way of parable: “If a person loses a gem,” he asks, “where will they go to find it? They will return to the place where they lost it” (Aggadat Bereshit, 68). So, too, did God “lose” Israel in the wilderness when the spies led them to demand a return to Egypt. And since it was in the wilderness that God lost Israel, it is in the wilderness that God waits and calls out for Israel to return.
Of course, the wilderness is frightening. It is a place of extremes—of dangerous animals, of searing heat and punishing frost, of scarce food and water. There, a minor mishap can become a life-threatening emergency. And so, when we venture into the wilderness, we go well equipped, just as our ancestors tried to be. Parashat Bemidbar opens the desert trek with a precisely described sense of order. Moses is like a scoutmaster, preparing his charges for the rigors of the road. There is a census, and then a detailed description of the arrangement of the camp, replete with visual imagery of colorful pennants under which our ancestors marched. They were well organized in the beginning—as befits the start of an expedition—but in this book, the people of Israel will repeatedly break ranks, betray one another, and turn on their leaders. The farther Israel gets from Sinai, the fainter grows its inspiring message and the louder grow their voices of doubt and fear.
If God lost Israel in the wilderness, and God waits there for us still, then we, too, ought to leave the comforts of home at times and visit the wilderness, the midbar. In towns and cities we build ornate structures of religious life, and indeed, Judaism flourishes in urban settings. But it is in the wilderness that we can hear the divine voice and remember our purpose as people and as Jews. The wilderness speaks—hamidbar medaber—and in it a person may discern the voice of God. In the wilderness, the Torah may reveal itself once more. So, too, did my miserable trek on that ridge in the Cascades yield to magical moments. That Shabbat we camped on a little island in the middle of a rushing stream, and in its pulsing voice, I felt the presence of our Creator.
As the weather warms, it is time to seek out wild places, experience the raw power of God’s world, and listen for the divine call.
Ever since Sinai, the people of Israel have walked away from the mountain where they heard God’s thundering voice. We have mostly fled from the wilderness and sought out the city. But once a year on Shavuot, the people of Israel reorient themselves toward the mountain of God. This week we begin the book of Numbers, with its wild and petulant pages, and imagine ourselves back in the wilderness, returning to the mountain of the Lord. And this week we will also celebrate Shavuot, the holiday of revelation at Mount Sinai. Around midnight on Shavuot eve, let us try to wake up and listen closely, opening ourselves once more to hear the voice of God.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Parashah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).