When we enter the world of the Book of Numbers, Bamidbar, In the Wilderness, I harken back to the discomfort of my own camping experiences. There was always grumbling from me or my brother. Yet the wilderness is the place of revelation.
True, its discomforts and exertions bring people’s character flaws to the surface, but it is there that they discern the voice of God and their national mission. Numbers begins in the wilderness but concludes on the banks of the River Jordan, across from Jericho. The people who arrive are battle hardened, but what has become of their spirit?
Later books of the Bible present conflicting reports of Israel in the wilderness. Jeremiah (2:2) speaks fondly of the young love of Israel for God, like a bride following her groom. But the Book of Psalms (95:10) recalls the desert trek as 40 years of incessant whining.
Both accounts have verisimilitude. The desert was a place of terror and grievances but also of inspiration and love. Perhaps the challenges of the wilderness are a necessary discomfort for a revelation of the spirit. In Second Isaiah, the prophet who seeks to reboot the covenant after the catastrophic destruction and exile begins his words: “A voice cries out in the wilderness: ‘Make a path for the Lord!’ ” (40:3) The wilderness speaks, hamidbar medaber, and generations of Jews have returned to its rugged isolation to discover the divine presence.
Of course, the wilderness goes from daunting to frightening. It is a place of extremes: of dangerous animals, of searing heat and punishing frost, of scarce food and water. A minor mishap can become a life-threatening emergency. And so, when we venture into the wilderness, we go well-equipped, just as our ancestors tried to be.
Bamidbar opens the desert trek with a precisely described sense of order. Moses is like a scoutmaster, preparing his charges. There is a census and then a detailed description of the arrangement of the camp, replete with visual imagery of colorful banners under which our ancestors marched. They were well organized in the beginning, as befits the start of an expedition but, in this book, the people of Israel will repeatedly break ranks, betray one another and turn on their leaders. The farther Israel gets from Sinai, the fainter grows its inspiring message, and the louder grow its voices of doubt and fear.
Once a year, on Shavuot, the people of Israel figuratively reorient themselves toward the mountain of God. (Just as we do not know where Moses is buried, we do not know where the mountain of God, Mount Sinai, is. Our rabbis tell us that we do not want to turn them into unintended shrines.)
This Sunday night, Monday and Tuesday, we will celebrate Shavuot, the holiday of revelation. On Shavuot eve, during our Tikkun Leil Shavuot, let us try to wake up and listen closely, opening ourselves once more to hear the voice of our God.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.