MAKING MEANING IN THE WILDERNESS: A COMMENTARY ON B’MIDBAR
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah – LJ E-Bulletin, May 2017
As we read the Torah every week, each one of us is challenged to read it in the context of our own lives; from a perspective that is shaped by our passions, concerns and values. That is what it means to be a Liberal Jew: to link ourselves as individuals living now to the traditions we have inherited; to find ways of making sense of our inheritance, so that it speaks to us and informs our shared task of creating community. The challenge can seem quite formidable – in particular, when we read the third book of the Torah, Leviticus, which focuses on the sacrificial system of worship practised by our ancestors. And yet, the struggle to grapple with texts that seem alien to us can be very fruitful. We can, for example, explore the juxtaposition between the ethical rules set out in Leviticus 19 and the sexual prohibitions that occupy chapters 18 and 20, in our efforts to formulate a much-needed inclusive approach to sexual ethics for our lives today.
This week, we turn to the fourth book of the Torah and discover that we are in territory that seems more amenable to meaning-making. The metaphor of ‘territory’ is very apt. Like all the books of the Torah, this fourth book has an English name and a Hebrew name. In English, Numbers. In Hebrew, B’midbar. While the English name encapsulates one of the book’s main concerns, the Hebrew name derives from the first differentiating word. The first verse begins: Va-y’dabbeir Adonai el-Moshe – ‘The Eternal spoke to Moses’. I haven’t counted the number of times this phrase is repeated, but the sum must be in the several thousands. The verse then continues: … b’midbar Sinai – ‘in the wilderness of Sinai’. The word, b’midbar is what makes this new book stand out. And it is not only the books of the Torah that are named in this way. The first portion of B’midbar is also known as B’midbar – and the same goes for the first portion of the other four books of the Torah: Genesis/B’reishit, Exodus/Sh’mot, Leviticus/Va-yikra, Deuteronomy/D’varim. The name of each one of the fifty-four portions of the Torah derives from the first distinctive word.
Significantly, the English and Hebrew names of the fourth book of the Torah seem poles apart: Numbers/B’midbar. While, the book is preoccupied with the organisation of the tribes for their journey from Sinai to the land beyond the River Jordan, the Hebrew name reminds us that this journey was not a straightforward march towards a destination. The people are in the wilderness; a wild unmapped territory. B’midbar takes us back to Exodus/Sh’mot – indeed, right back to Sinai, where the rabble of ex-slaves – including, both, Israelites and erev rav, a ‘mixed multitude’ – had stood at the foot of the quaking mountain, entered into a covenant with the Eternal, and become a people. So, now the people needs to get organised. But, again, they are in the wilderness.
Midbar is based on the Hebrew root, Dalet Beit Reish, to ‘speak’, from which another noun, davar, meaning, both, ‘word’ and ‘thing’ is also derived. The letter Mem at the beginning of midbar simply locates the word as a noun of place. And yet, it reminds us of another Mem, the preposition, mi, ‘from’ (minus the necessary dagesh – dot – in the next letter). So, let’s depart from the p’shat, the plain meaning for a moment, and imagine that midbar could be read as ‘from’ – in the sense of ‘without’ – ‘a thing’; that is, nothing: midbar; ‘nothingness’. Of course, a wilderness is not empty. If it is a desert, it’s a mass of rocks, sand and dust. If it is a jungle, it is packed with dense vegetation. What both a desert and a jungle have in common is that they are largely ‘wild’, untamed places, alive with wild creatures; unfit for human habitation. They are also notoriously difficult to navigate – which brings us back to ‘Numbers’: the organisation of the tribes for their march to the land beyond the Jordan, with which the fourth book of the Torah begins. At the end of the book, the last portion, massei, charts massei v’nei Yisrael, ‘the stages of the Israelites’ on their journey through the wilderness. The singular noun, massa, ‘stage’ is based on the Hebrew root, Nun Sameich Ayin, to pull out, or up, to set out, to journey. At the end of the journey, it is possible to look back and discern the stages of the journey. But between Sinai and the eastern bank of the Jordan: wilderness; a wilderness in which the people wandered for forty years. Indeed, their wilderness wanderings such a mystery that the story jumps from the second year to the end of the fortieth year; not a single word said about the thirty-eight years in between.
So, what might we learn from Numbers/B’midbar that is meaningful for our own lives as Liberal Jews today? On 11 June, we will gather at Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue for a ‘Day of Celebration’, packed with learning sessions and activities concerned in different ways with the question: Is Liberal Judaism Political Judaism? To be ‘political’ is to grapple with issues of power and responsibility and engage actively in the wider society and the world around us. That is exactly what Liberal Jews do. Life is a wilderness. It is our task, like our ancestors before us, to build community and put our ethical values into practice; to find pathways through the wilderness.
- See, for example, ‘Towards an Inclusive Sexual Ethic’ in my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, 2012, pp.177-185). ↑
- See Exodus 12:38. ↑
- B’midbar relates a series of rebellions that took place in the second year after the departure from Egypt, and which concluded with the revolt of Korach, Datan, Aviram (Numbers 16-18). The narrative then resumes at Numbers 20, with the death of Miriam in the first month of the fortieth year. ↑