“Surviving the Wilderness”
(updated and revised from Bamidbar 5764-2004)


by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bamidbar, the Israelites enter the wilderness of Sinai and begin their journey to the land of Canaan. Unfortunately, the journey to the land of “milk and honey” that normally takes only a few weeks, endured for 40 years because of the sin of the scouts/spies, (Numbers 13-14), resulting in the decree of G-d that no man who was above the age of 20 at that time, may enter into the land of Israel.

In parashat Bamidbar the Torah informs us (Numbers 1:1), that G-d speaks to Moses בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, in the wilderness of Sinai,בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית, לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, on the first day of the second month in the second year after the Exodus from the land of Egypt. The people of Israel were so close to the land of Israel, but never made it into the Promised Land, at least not the men of that generation.

If we take a long look at Jewish history, we see the theme of “unfulfilled dreams” repeating itself throughout the millennia of Jewish life. We have been so close so often to the goal of reaching the land of Israel, but only few Jews ever merited to reach the land, and even fewer succeed in dwelling on the land. These unfulfilled desires account for the fact that, for the most part, Jewish history is a record of the travels of the Jewish people through the wilderness of galut, exile and diaspora.

But while this sad destiny of the ancient Israelites and their fate to wander for 40 years in the wilderness is certainly unfortunate, the lessons learned in the wilderness and explicated in this week’s parasha, are lessons that have empowered the Jewish people to survive and thrive, through the many centuries of dispersion.

The primary message of parashat Bamidbar is then, that survival in the “wilderness” is intimately linked to the Jewish people’s commitment to G-d, and to the efficacy of Jewish societal structure.

In parsahat Bamidbar, the Torah incorporates both these themes. First, the people of Israel are counted and are told exactly where to camp. Through this, the Torah boldly teaches that Jewish survival is no accident. If the home is strong, if the family is strong, if the tribe and its dwelling is secure, then the people of Israel are strong. And, although the Torah describes in great detail which tribes encamp on the north, which on the south, which on the east, and which on the west, what is most important is that at the epicenter is always the camp of G-d. The center of Jewish life that is encompassed by the People, is the camp of G-d. The Tabernacle and the families of Levi that service the Tabernacle and minister to the people, are the core of Jewish life.

For more than 3300 years, the Jewish people have endured, while other great and more powerful civilizations have vanished from the face of the earth. Undoubtedly, the secret lessons of the “wilderness” have kept the people intact: Keep the families strong and secure. Make sure that the extended families–parents, grandparents, grandchildren, are close by. Make certain to live within walking distance of the “sanctuary”–the local synagogue, the Bet Midrash, the house of study, and the Yeshiva. Choose your place of residence by its proximity to Torah. Commit yourself to the practice of Jewish rituals and Jewish observance, which become so much easier to observe when done collectively, together with brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles.

It is therefore no coincidence that the fourth book of the bible is called Bamidbar–in the wilderness, because the wilderness has embodied so much of our history. But, while the wilderness experience provides important clues to Jewish survival, the wilderness, of course, can also lead to oblivion, annihilation and self-destruction.

Therefore, it is crucial for the people of Israel to master the secrets of survival that are to be found in the wilderness experiences. If the Jewish people are to endure and flourish in the future, those secrets, found in this week’s parasha, must be rigorously studied and imbibed by all.

May You Be Blessed.