Image: Joshua Tree National Monument, an American wilderness. (nightowl/pixabay)
The book of Numbers is known in Hebrew as Bamidbar.
The word bamidbar means “in the wilderness.” It is in the first verse of the first chapter of Numbers:
And the Eternal spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying: – Numbers 1:1
Midbar is a key word in the Jewish view of the world. We spent 40 years in the wilderness of Sinai.
Notice that the verse specifies a particular wilderness, the wilderness of Sinai. It implies to us that there are other midbarim, other wildernesses, as well.
Midbar is a place with no security and few signposts. Midbar is a place where our imaginations can get the best of us. Midbar is a place where many wild animals live, but few human beings. Midbar both draws us and repels us.
The midbar in the photo above is not midbar Sinai, but the Joshua Tree National Park – you could call it midbar Joshua, I suppose. As you can see, it is a brutal landscape, full of rocks and spiny plants. And yet it is also a place of great fascination and a deep beauty. When I felt overwhelmed by my studies in rabbinical school, I would drive out to Joshua Tree and spend Shabbat sitting on a rock, soaking up the midbar. If I sat quietly, I would see many of its denizens: birds, snakes, lizards, and bugs.
I remember joking to someone that it wasn’t all that different from Los Angeles: full of strange creatures, hot in the summer and dry nearly all the time, except when it rained, which was always a disaster.
As Jews know, sometimes the world is a midbar, a place of no guarantees. We may think that we’ve put our bit of it in order, but then a storm comes and – midbar! We may think our family safe and secure, then there’s an accident or illness and – midbar! We may assure ourselves of an outcome and then something else happens – midbar! We may reassure ourselves that racism, or anti-Semitism, or lawlessness is something somewhere else, and then – midbar!
We are living in midbar times right now, times when things we once took for granted seem no longer assured. Perhaps it is time to recognize that those things are never assured, that we can never take them for granted.
What tools do we have? We have what we have always had: Torah and mitzvot.
Even when it seems that everything has changed, nothing really changes. We are still traversing the midbar, bearing the tablets in our arms.