Fear, uncertainty and faith in the wilderness

Rabbi Tracy Nathan

By Rabbi Tracy Nathan

With Parashat B’midbar, we begin reading Sefer B’midbar, the Book of Numbers, which recounts the stories of the people of Israel’s time living in the midbar, the desert wilderness. It is to the midbar that the Israelites go upon leaving Egypt, and it is where they face fear and uncertainty and encounter freedom, faith, and love. And it is in the midbar where they hear the words of the Blessed Holy One, transforming their lives and the world. 

The image of the midbar is that of unsettled, unmarked, open space. The unsettled nature of the wilderness also embodies the emotional state of the people in this betwixt and between time. And the stories of Sefer Bamidbar reflect this wild domain — the people complain, feel demoralized and lose hope; but they also strive for faith and come together in their battles against enemies. 

The midbar is that place in which Moses tells us that the people of Israel met God “in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness” (Deuteronomy 32:10).  The tumult of life, it seems, is often where the voice of the Divine is heard. 

When Abraham casts Hagar and Ishmael out of his household, she “wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-Sheva” and thirsts for water, and it is here that she sees the well of water to quench her child’s thirst and hears the Divine voice of hope, faith, and possibility (Genesis 21:14-21). 

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The wilderness is the landscape of our sacred encounters. Moses leads his flock of sheep into the wilderness and hears God’s voice from the flames of a bush calling him to go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from their oppression and suffering (Exodus 3:1).

And it is here in the wilderness of Sinai, that the Israelites hear the voice of God calling them to become servants of compassion, justice, equality, and dignity, as a response to the oppressive, exploitative world from which they had been liberated.  

I have been reflecting on the midbar —  the unsettled, unmarked, space of the wilderness – in this time of quarantine. Here we are, indefinitely, in this place of betwixt and between. We are in uncharted territory, even as some places begin to “open up.” 

The midbar is a place of daytime heat and nighttime cold, of dryness and disorientation and can certainly be a place of fear. At the same time, it is a place of exquisite beauty, watering holes, and quiet solitude. In my own quarantine midbar, I have experienced moments of anxiety, fear, anger, wonder, awe, beauty, and I find that this new landscape has provided me the ground through which to be awake and present to all of it. 

Even before this unprecedented time of collective disruption, the midbar was often not a place we choose to go to, but it nonetheless comes to us at various points in our lives. It is that broken place of chaos when illness suddenly strikes, or death, or job loss, or divorce, or other major losses. Suddenly all that we thought

 was important is less so. But sometimes, as we enter that vast, howling, silent, and terrifying terrain we find — or are found by — that which is most essential. Something, someone is there — a silent presence able to hold us.

When  God looks back on the time the Israelites spent in the midbar, sometimes the memory is of the grumbling and the failures. But many other times, it is a memory of first love. In Jeremiah, we read “I remember you, the devotion of your youth, your love like a bride, when you went after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.” (Jeremiah 2:2). 

Here in the midbar, there is terrifying wildness and beauty, loss and unexpected discovery. After slavery and humiliation in Egypt, the Israelites discover themselves as loved. In becoming disoriented in the wilderness, they discover God, they discover themselves, and they begin to dream a different dream than what was possible in Egypt. In the landscape of chaos and relative emptiness the words of Torah could be heard, like the whispered words of a lover who accompanied us into the chaos.

Rabbi Tracy Nathan is Senior Educator and Director of Melton-St. Louis at the Center for Jewish Learning, Jewish Federation of St. Louis. She is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Light.