Sunday, May 18, 2014

In the Wilderness (Portion Bemidbar)

Next Shabbat, we will begin the book of Numbers, which is known in Hebrew as B’midbar, meaning “in the wilderness.”  That is also the name of the week’s portion, and, in a sense, it captures the theme of the book as a whole, which focuses on the narrative of our wanderings, between leaving Egypt and arriving in the Promised Land.

Our Rabbis ask: “Why was Torah given in a wilderness?” and the Talmud, in Nedarim 55a, answers that if we want to learn Torah, we have to emulate the terrain where it was given, by making ourselves open and ownerless.  As the commentary in Etz Hayim notes: It is intimidating to open oneself to the demands of God, to a new and morally demanding way of life.  Torah portrays the people as periodically wishing they were back in the predictable, morally undemanding servitude of Egypt.  Yet Israel’s willingness to accept the Torah, to be open as a wilderness, was the essential first step in God’s remaking the world.  Perhaps this kind of openness is the prerequisite for all real learning and personal growth.  If we wish to move forward, it is important to be able to let go of our hardened assumptions and be willing to let the world act upon us in new ways.  Many of us find it easier to do just this when we take time to experience the power of wild places. 

In this spirit, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner offers a related insight into the connection between Torah and wilderness: The reason Sinai is so special and the reason why we are unable to hear Torah all the time, suggests Eliyahu KiTov, is because the noise, static, and muzak of this world drown out the sound of God’s voice.  At Sinai, not a bird chirped or a sound [other than God’s voice] was heard.  At Sinai we could hear what had been there (and continues to be here) all along.

We all have our own personal Sinai spaces and times, where we are able to step away from the chatter of daily live and reflect on what matters most.  A few weeks ago, I went paddling in Oregon’s John Day Wilderness, spending three days and seventy miles with good friends and colleagues.  We didn’t see or hear another soul the entire time.  And in the quiet of the canyon, or sitting together by a campfire, we heard God’s voice, in our own conversations with one another and with ourselves, and in the spaces between those conversations.

Not all of us can—or wish to—take time off the grid.  But even if we do not leave our homes, we can create our own wilderness times, disconnecting from the world of technology and reconnecting with God, with family, and with our own still, small voices of conscience and vision.

Henry David Thoreau famously declared: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”  As we enter the wilderness this week with portion B’midbar consider ways that you might make yourself more open, more ownerless, and more still, like that sacred space.

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