“The Meaning of the Wilderness”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, opens with the following words  (Numbers 1:1): “Vah’y’dah’bayr Hashem el Moshe b’midbar See’nai…lay’mohr,” And G-d spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…saying….

The book of Bamidbar records how the Israelites were organized in tribal camps and began their 40 year trek in the wilderness. We also learn of the battles and the many miracles that occurred to the people during those years, the spies who returned from Canaan with an evil report, causing the generation that left Egypt never to enter the land of Israel, and of the civil uprising led by Korach that almost tore the nation asunder. We are also informed of the attempts of Bilaam and Balak to curse the Jewish people in order to defeat them. Many additional laws are introduced in this book as well.

It is interesting to note that the anglicized names, derived from the original Greek, that were given to the Five Books of Moses generally reflect the essential themes of each book. Genesis–-the story of creation, Exodus–-the enslavement in Egypt and the liberation, Leviticus–-the laws of the Priests and Levites, Numbers–-counting the people, and Deuteronomy–-a recapitulation of previous themes and laws found in the earlier books.

The Hebrew names of the five books are selected from the primary Hebrew word that appears in the first verse of each book. Hence, Bereishit–-“In the Beginning,” Shemot–-“the names,” Vayikra–-“And He called,” Bamidbar–-“in the wilderness,” Devarim–-“the words.”

Since the anglicized names of the books were chosen to specifically describe the contents of the book, they invariably reflect the contents of the books more closely than the Hebrew names. And, yet, the messages contained in the Hebrew names must not be dismissed. To the contrary, each one of the Hebrew names reflects an important message about the theme of the specific book.

The name of the fourth book, Bamidbar–-“in the Wilderness,” is no exception, and teaches us much about G-d’s message to His people, Israel. The Midrash Rabbah (1:7) raises the following question and provides an interesting answer: Why was the Torah given in the wilderness? Because the Torah is compared to the desert that is open and accessible to all humankind, as it is said (Isaiah 55:1): Let everyone who is thirsty, come for water [Torah].

Again the Midrash asks and responds (Midrash Rabbah 19:26): Why was the Torah not given in the Promised Land? So that no one tribe would have a preferred claim. Moreover, just as the Torah came from a land neither sown nor tilled, so too, should Torah scholars live without sowing or tilling, that is, they should be relieved of the yoke of earning a living.

The Midrash presents a further question and answer (Midrash Rabbah 19:26): Who preserves the Torah? He who makes himself like the desert–-set apart from the world.

We see that each of these three midrashic selections focus upon different features of the midbar–wilderness, and relate them all to the study of Torah. Torah must be open and accessible to all. Torah scholars should be relieved of the yoke of earning a living. In order to be able to concentrate fully on Torah study, Torah scholars should be separated from the mundane world.

It was not by accident that the young nation of Israel spent its formative years wandering in the wilderness. Indeed, the midbar–-the wilderness and the wilderness experience impacted profoundly on the Jews of that generation, and the many lessons it taught have continued to impact on Jews throughout the ages. The fact that G-d communicates with Israel so frequently in the wilderness underscores the omnipresence of G-d. How ironic it is that in the barren wilderness, a place seemingly bereft of both man and G-d, the Divine spirit is ever-present. It is here, in this dismal and lonely environment, that G-d regularly communicates with His people and performs miracles for them on a daily basis. How often do we hear it said, especially in the face of seeming abandonment and aloneness, “G-d does not listen to me!” And yet, the wilderness experience teaches that G-d’s presence is always there. Not only there, but extremely accessible.

Many often invoke the excuse of the “wilderness,” claiming that in unfavorable and challenging conditions and situations, it is difficult to hear G-d. And, yet, it is precisely in these circumstances that G-d draws close to His people, Israel.

It was, after all, in the desert, with its overwhelming bleakness, that the Torah, our proudest possession, was given to the Jewish people. It is the Torah that fashioned the character of the Jewish people, making it possible for the Jewish people to carry its message to all humanity. Yes, it was the voice of G-d that spoke to us in the wilderness, and it is His message that we are expected to broadcast to the entire world.

Finally, the fact that the events recorded in this book take place in the midbar, in the wilderness, reminds us that there are no conditions and no circumstances, no matter how hard or how challenging, in which the Jewish people cannot hear the voice of G-d–-if they are only determined to hear it!

May you be blessed.

Please note:
This year Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Reunification Day, is observed this Tuesday evening, May 11th through Wednesday night, May 12th. This year marks the 43rd anniversary of the reunification of the city.