Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise, Shabbat 27th Iyyar 5776, 4th June 2016
Bamidbar. In the desert. Why a desert? Because it’s there? That’s as good an answer as any. But because it was there, it also becomes a symbol, a metaphor, a source of interpretation and agadot.
What does a desert have? If it’s the Sahara it has a lot of sand, a few oases and not much more. If it’s the Judean Desert or the Sinai desert as in our case, it has sand and some shrubs, trees and oases. Enough for people to eke out a living if they are wise to the ways of the desert.
This is how the book of Bamidbar, the book of numbers in English, begins. We are on the first day of the second month of the second year after the exodus from Egypt, and we are in the Sinai Desert, which means we are still hovering around the mountain where the Torah was given. And we are near the Tent of Meeting – Ohel Moed – where God speaks to Moshe.
Moshe starts off by taking a census, and in fact, the whole parsha is a list of numbers of families in each tribe, tribes in each of four camps, the Levites who are not counted with the other tribes because their job is to carry and care for the tabernacle. We have further counts in this book, so its English name is well deserved. But its Hebrew name, Bamidbar, is also well suited. The people are in the desert and the desert is in the people.
I read the opening of the parsha and I ask, Why are they still in the Sinai Desert? Why haven’t the people progressed toward the land they were promised? What’s holding up the procession? And then I think, Who are these people? Two years out of slavery. Is the slavery out of their systems? What would happen if God led them now to the Promised Land and helped them to conquer it and take it over?
One possibility is that they would cower at the first sign of opposition from the locals, after God gave them the land and left them to their own devices. Another option is that they would each settle into his or her own land and either work hard to succeed or just wallow in the sheer pleasure of being their own bosses. Or they would start to bicker, which is what usually happens when people have nothing better to do (and even when they do).
And so they need some indoctrination, some preparation for being an independent people, for having some inner reserves that will help them when the time comes, both as individuals and especially as a nation. And for this, there is no better place than the desert. To this day, the desert is a refuge for people who want to dig deeper into themselves for self-enlightenment. To build up moral and physical strength. Our Judean Desert was home to countless hermits and recluses who wanted to find their God and find themselves. Some of the monasteries they built are still there. The Essenes went to the desert to escape what they considered un-Jewish actions in Jerusalem. The desert is bare bones living.
For what is the reality of the desert? Nothing. Nothing that can distract you from what you HAVE to do to survive. You see an animal. That’s potential food and if it’s big enough potential clothing. There’s a tree. Potential fruits or shade or building materials. There’s a bush. That’s grazing for my one sheep and may mean water under the ground. There’s sand and rocks. Areas you have to negotiate with care because you don’t want to be injured. Everything is about survival. And in the Israelites’ case, it also requires belief in a God who will see them through this purgatory.
So, for our Israelites, a few years in the desert and the people will know how to survive there, which means they can also survive where there is more, like fruit trees and fields and water in abundance. And then, perhaps they won’t have to be so dependent on supreme intervention.
But the plan is to build them up spiritually, too. And that is why we are told that, yes, they are in the desert, and they are near the Tent of Meeting.
The Tent of Meeting is the cornerstone of their religious life and organization. That’s the place where Moshe goes in and comes out with more pronouncements from on high about what they must do. It is the source of the meticulous order that the Israelites must maintain, according to laws and mitzvoth that they receive on a regular basis from Moshe.
How long would it take for this meticulous order to be internalized, instilled in them so deeply that they could carry it into the land and abide by that order even when conditions were more favorable? Two years? Five? Ten?
This is a serious question because the original plan of bringing this ragtag group straight into a land occupied by strong nations does not seem realistic. Perhaps the people would have wandered the desert for another five years before finally being led to Canaan. Thus, the sin of the spies which we will read about in a few weeks, plays right into God’s hands and plans and allows him to play pin the tail on the desert donkey with the Israelites for 40 years.
Some people think we are in a spiritual desert today. I could argue just the opposite. We don’t have the quiet and calm of the desert, the time to concentrate on the really important issues for our spiritual survival. We are kept too busy with other things – thanks to others and thanks to ourselves.
What would we do if we had more time to ourselves? Would we use that time productively, such as for improving ourselves, our society? Some people certainly would try. Others might want to but wouldn’t know how. It’s so very easy to get caught up in busy-work that eats up all our time.
The Israelites were not given the chance to claim that they had other things to deal with. They had the desert, they had orders from on high, through the mouth of Moshe, and that’s how they were supposed to prepare for their eventual entry into the promised land.
How ironic, then, that even with all this preparation they managed to go off the wrong end time and again. In the desert and in the land. Perhaps we would too. We certainly seem to be doing so as a nation, even now. Which just proves again that Oscar Wilde was right: we can resist everything but temptation.
Next Saturday night and then Sunday we celebrate Shavuot. Another chance to get it right. Maybe this time!