Bamidbar: Connection v. Chaos

Image: The wilderness of Joshua Tree National Park (Photo: Ruth Adar)

This week’s Torah portion is Bamidbar, “In the wilderness.” The portion talks about census-taking and the organization of the Israelite camp in the wilderness of Sinai.

I love the contrast: the Israelites are surrounded by wilderness, and God directs them to organize themselves. It’s another version of the Creation story in Genesis. The earth is “unformed and void” (Genesis 1:1) and what does God do? God brings order out of the disorder. Similarly, at the beginning of the Book of Numbers God speaks to Moses in the wilderness, in a place of disorganization, and directs Moses to take a census and organize the Israelites.

First of all, this is a persistent vision in Torah, echoing the Creation story. Order is preferred to disorder. Life cannot be sustained and protected without some organization.

Second, “wilderness” is more than a place. The Israelites had been delivered from enslavement in Egypt – a narrow place, Mitzrayim – and now they were out in the wide world, free but disorganized. They will not survive the challenges of wilderness without organizing themselves. God provides them direction for doing that, ordering that the tribes each have a specific place to live, and assigning them specific tasks.

We Americans have a fantasy about the self-sufficient loner, or the self-sufficient family, living somewhere in the West, carving a living from the land. Bamidbar is a different vision: individuals as part of families, which in turn are related as tribes, and it is the cooperation of all that makes for survival in the midbar, the wild lands of Sinai. Alone they would be vulnerable to wild animals and raiders. In a tightly organized camp, they were safe, indeed, they were powerful.

In every life there are times when the midbar, the wilderness, is a powerful metaphor. The world feels hostile and frightening: how will we live? How will we survive challenges from people who want to steal our food, our belongings, maybe even our lives? What will we eat? How will we have enough money to live, and pay our taxes too? How will we keep our jobs, if it seems like all the jobs go to someone else? How will we be safe from crime, when it seems to be everywhere?

These worries can be overwhelming. It may be tempting to let the fear overtake us, to see everyone as an enemy, to go out into the wilderness and try to make it on our own, away from the scary people.

The truth is that survival comes in community, in relationships. The Israelites fought among themselves all the time (sometimes with terrible results) but God ordered them to stay together, to organize themselves, to learn how to get along. We are interconnected: we are social beings.

Let us resist the urge to hide in our houses, to hide behind our screens (TV screens, computer screens, tablets, smartphones) and instead, let us connect with the real people around us. Let’s get together and share food, share fears, share dreams. Let’s get together and work for a better world.

For make no mistake, we are living in times that feel like wilderness. It’s no place or time to be alone.

Wilderness, Again

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.