Sermon: Ba-midbar – what we might learn in the wilderness

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 1 June 2019

“Vay’dabeir Adonai el Moshe b’midbar Sinai –
God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…”

So Jakob read for us this morning, as we began the book of Numbers, so called because of the census at its start, but in Hebrew ‘Bamidbar’ – in the wilderness.

But why ‘bamidbar’ – why ‘in the wilderness’?
Why is this the setting for our interaction with God?  The wilderness represents negatives – not home, not safety, not settled-ness.

Our tradition often focusses on the promise of being settled in the land, the promise of the destination.  Yet our formative moments happen not in the land.  Three quarters of Torah is set in the wilderness.  We are a people defined by wandering outside.  Indeed, our annual reading of Torah leaves us there – on the edge of Canaan, never quite reaching the end.

Dor ha-midbar, the generation who, through their loss of nerve, cause Israel to remain in the wilderness – they are condemned.  According to one tradition, they are denied even a place in the world to come.  And yet, the most sacred, the most defining interactions between God and Israel take place in that very wilderness.

None more important, of course, than the narrative of revelation, which we will celebrate on Shavuot, at z’man matan torateinu – the time of the giving of the Torah.  The setting for the giving of Torah is empty wilderness.

The rabbis, driven by their search for meaning in every aspect of the text, cannot see this as just background, just as the setting for the narrative.  For them, the setting has purpose, the choice of the wilderness as the place of revelation loaded with symbolic meanings, a source of teaching, defining of who we are.

“Kol mi she-eino oseh atzmo k-midbar hefker, eino yachol liknot et ha-chochmah v’ha-Torah,” they tell us (in Midrash Numbers Rabbah) – “Anyone who does not make themselves open like a wilderness cannot acquire wisdom and Torah”.

The setting of the interaction with God is itself, the rabbis argue, critical; the wilderness is the point.  For without the wilderness, revelation cannot take place – acquiring wisdom, acquiring Torah, requires wilderness within us.

What does this mean?
The rabbis demand a level of humility, of openness, of rawness like the wild, of dependence – for with these come the ability to learn from others.
The acquisition of wisdom requires us to make ourselves like the wilderness, to remove our sense of self-importance, our pre-existing assumptions, to strip ourselves back, to ask what is important.

The Kotzker rebbe, a Hasidic leader of the nineteenth century put it like this:
“Only a person who is willing to make nothing of himself, who thinks of himself as a desert, is truly worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on him and of attaining the true light of the Torah.”

This message is paralleled in a midrash – a piece of rabbinic imagination – about the specific choice of Sinai as the mountain for revelation.  According to this midrash, when God sought to give the Torah to Israel, the mountains all clambered to be chosen, each explaining why they were the best or most important.  God rejected them all, explaining that they had disqualified themselves as a result of their arrogance.  Thus God chose instead Mount Sinai, which had remained quiet, characterised by its humility.

This tradition is found in the Talmud along with a powerful hyperbolic statement – “any person who possesses arrogance of spirit, the Holy One says: this one and I cannot dwell together in this world”.

La’asot “atzmo k-midbar hefker” – to make oneself open like the wilderness.  The word hefker, though often translated ‘open’ in this context, literally means ‘free of ownership’.   This too was significant to the rabbis – that the setting for revelation is not owned, that it belongs to none, or all.  Wisdom and Torah, this states, are not the exclusive property of one group.

So, why was the Torah not given in the land of Israel the rabbis ask?  If it had been, then it would – necessarily – have been given in the territory of one tribe.  And that tribe would then have claimed greater ownership, greater importance.  So, God gave it in the wilderness, so that all should have an equal claim to it.   The core rabbinic message – that wisdom, truth, does not belong to just one group, that all are as important.

A similar idea is found in the arrangement of the tribes around the tabernacle, which is described a little later in this morning’s Torah portion.  As they travelled through the wilderness, the sanctuary was surrounded by the tribes, with each equidistant from the Holy of Holies.  Despite their differences, all were grouped around a common centre, all focussed on that which united them.  When the land was entered, and then when the Temple was built, this ideal arrangement was broken – some were nearer, some further away, and with this inevitably comes conflict.

The wilderness thus represents an ideal state in which equality of importance rather than vested interest and ownership is the defining feature of communal life.  And, as Jakob has taught us this morning, one of the key ideas taken from the census at the beginning of Numbers – carried out in the wilderness of Sinai – was that the counting shows that every individual mattered equally.  In their travels, the Israelites counted together, and moved together.


Every year now, our reading of Bamidbar comes in June – with the shadow of Brexit over us.
Three years ago, on the Shabbat immediately following the referendum, we read the story of the spies, the events that would condemn the Israelites to wander in the wilderness.  Like dor hamidbar, three years on we find ourselves still on an unknown journey, with no clarity of destination.

This week we feel no closer to knowing where we will end – elections which revealed a divided nation, a governing party in a period of self-indulgent chaos, an opposition mired in lack of clarity, internal dispute and worse.

The negatives of wilderness are all too evident for us.

Yet bamidbar – in the wilderness.
The wilderness, the rabbis taught us, is the place.  It is where we can find out who we are; where we might acquire wisdom if we – as individuals and as a nation – are willing to reach for it.

Can we be humble?  Can we recognise that the journey is difficult, be open to the possibility of learning from others?  Can we ask what is really important in the outcome?  Can we put aside personal ambition?

Are we able to resist the pull of vested interest, to recognise that each of us has a claim to the future?  Can we acknowledge that every individual matters, and that in our wandering – wherever we might go – ultimately we will all go together?

It is a lot to ask of a polarised nation, and even more to ask of those who currently lead us.  Our ancestors, it is worth remembering, wandered for forty years, a full generation in biblical terms.  It is possible we might have to wait.
But “Vay’dabeir Adonai el Moshe b’midbar Sinai” – “God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…”

The wilderness is the point – it can be the place where we find wisdom.  The truth of who we really can be will ultimately be found in the quality of our wandering, not merely in the destination we one day will reach.