This week we begin a new book of the Torah. In English the book is called Numbers, because it begins with a census. In Hebrew, the book is called Bamidbar: in the desert. In our tradition, we name the book of the Torah by a word which is significant from the first few sentences. In the case of Bamidbar, our ancestors clearly felt that the desert was far more significant than the counting. So, why is that?
The rabbis answer that the giving of the Torah and the Israelites’ wanderings were central to the story of our people and formative in shaping who we were to become, and that the fact that both of these events happened in the desert was extremely significant.
The Israelites found themselves in the wilderness (the “midbar”) after their escape from slavery. They were struggling to become free — to remove the shackles of their oppression in Egypt and become a community and a nation. The years in the wilderness were a time of healing. It was a time when a people who had suffered so much, learned what it meant to be masters of their own destiny. And to do that they needed to be in the midbar. The desert nurtured and protected them. It sheltered them from the storms of the city life, its pressures and its intensity. It provided them with a new outlook, and taught them important lessons which we would do well to learn.
The desert is not what it first seems — it takes time to know and understand. There is life teeming in the wilderness. There is food and water; but you have to take time to feel the silence, to hear the whispers of the wind, to find the true desert. It is the same with life and relationships. There is goodness and beauty in people, but sometimes we do not take the time to know them and see the beauty within. Sometimes we judge without looking beneath the surface. The wilderness taught the Israelites, and it teaches us, to take the time to look, to see and to feel.
The wilderness also teaches the importance of community — of being together and working as one towards a common goal. There, everyone was equal. The Israelites had to rely on one another. They had to work together to recognize each other’s strengths and abilities in order to harness them for the community. The desert taught us to be more than ourselves; it showed us the strength and beauty of community.
But more than anything else, the wilderness gave us time. Time to escape the noise and frenetic pace of life in Egypt. Time to think, to rest and to just be. Many of us are working at an unsustainable pace. We go from one activity to another without finding time for leisure, for family, for fun. We are overworked, stressed and unhappy. We have forgotten the lessons of the wilderness; we do not stop long enough to hear the silence. The Israelites heard the voice of God in the desert — it was only when they were able to stop that they could really hear. It is no accident that the letters in the word “midbar” are the same as the word “medaber”, to speak. It is in the expanse of the wilderness that we are able to hear the voice of God, and each other. The children of Israel found holiness, even in what seems to be one of the most desolate of places on earth, because they learned to look closely and see what is beneath the surface. They took the time to listen, hear and feel; and they learned the importance of caring for themselves and others. May we too learn the lessons of the midbar.