Sunday, May 13, 2018

No Direction Home: Torah and Wilderness (portion Bemidbar)

How does it feel—to be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?
            -Bob Dylan

This week, we begin the book of Numbers, known in Hebrew as B’midbar, meaning “in the wilderness.”  That is also the name of this 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.  How does it feel to live in such a space, so aptly described by Bob Dylan as both thrilling and bewildering?

It is no accident that we encounter these chapters each year shortly before Shavuot, the festival that celebrates the giving of Torah (which begins on Saturday night), for there is a strong connection between the gift of Torah and the wilderness experience.

Midrash Rabbah asks: “Why was Torah given in a wilderness?” and then answers, “Because just as a wilderness is ownerless and available to everyone, so the Torah is not the domain of an elite few but rather is available for anyone who wishes to come and partake of it.”  This is truer now than ever, with excellent Torah study resources available on the Internet.  Just google the weekly portion and you will come up with a vast array of interpretations, from secular humanist to ultra-Orthodox and everything in between.

The Talmud takes this a step farther, deriving a psychological lesson from the wilderness experience.  In Nedarim 55a, we learn that if we want to learn Torah, we have to emulate the terrain where it was given, by making ourselves open and ownerless.  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.  Or as Reb Dylan put it, “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner offers this insight about 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.

Two centuries ago, William Wordsworth lamented, “The world is too much with us; late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”  Today, this is ever more the case.  We are bombarded with information, and while much of it is enormously helpful, it is easy to lose God’s voice amidst this great din.  Many of us go to the wilderness, quite literally, to get off the grid.  But even if we cannot make it out to the Sawtooths, 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.

As we enter the wilderness this week with portion B’midbar, and prepare to receive the Torah on Shavuot, consider ways that you might make yourself more open, more ownerless, and more still, like that sacred space.