The Book of Bamidbar, known in English as Numbers, but translated as “In the Desert”, is the book of transition in the Torah – taking us from the generation that grew up in Egypt, saw the miracles of the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai, to the generation that was to walk on without Moses into the Land of Israel.
It would take 40 years of wandering, the deaths of Moses, Aaron and Miriam and the numerous trials and rebellions that make up the bulk of this book. We know this desert to be barren, dry, tough: reflecting our feelings, fears and anxiety when we may be exposed to the brutal rawness, the scorching heat and parched earth of the areas outside of human settlement.
But the Jews had left Sinai with hope. The Midrash views the desert in a different light: “Just as the desert has no end, so too words of Torah have no end…” “only one who makes himself ownerless (hefker) like a desert acquires words of Torah.”
The wisdom of Torah cannot be acquired in an academic fashion. Divine wisdom is transformative, merging body and soul, ennobling, and elevating one’s personality and enlightening and expanding one’s mind. The desert experience was, in its inception, to teach the humility, bravery, and faith necessary.
Many things went wrong along the way. Nevertheless, just as the Jewish people eventually made it to the Promised Land, so, too, the times we feel isolated, neglected and exposed, can build our personalities to enable us to connect to the Divine Wisdom of the Torah.
ω Rabbi Garry Wayland is an educator with United Synagogue Living & Learning