Parashat B'midbar

Spiritual Lessons of the Desert

The open spaces of the wilderness can help us access inspiration.

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While the first significant word in Numbers (1:1), "B'midbar" (in the desert), bestows upon the biblical book its Hebrew name, this is not the first time that reference is made to the desert in the Five Books of Moses. Already in Genesis, the desert is depicted as a place of exile, devoid of significant human habitation, attracting those consigned to its bleak landscape to live an outlaw and even criminal existence (Genesis 16:7; 21:14; 21:20-21).

However, in Exodus, the same desert environment that was earlier so clearly associated with desolation and violence takes on an additional, supremely positive spiritual context.

Why the Desert?

The Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 1:7) asserts that aside from the logistical benefit of finding a location devoid of people and the idolatrous practices so synonymous with Egyptian society, the desert also contributed to an insight regarding the ubiquitous availability of Torah:

"The Rabbis taught: The Torah was given by means of/within the context of three things—fire, rain and desert…From where do we know that the desert played a role? As it says (Numbers 1:1): 'And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert.'"

"And why was the Torah given by means of/within the context of these three things? Just as these three things can be obtained for free by anyone in the world, so too the words of Torah are free, as it is said (Isaiah 55:1): 'All who are thirsty should go to obtain water, and anyone who has no money should go and break bread and eat, and break bread and eat without money and without a price for wine and milk.'"

Another interpretation: Why (was the Torah given) in the desert? Anyone who does not make himself ownerless, like the desert, cannot acquire the Torah."

The first interpretation in this Midrash appears to be decidedly economic. Just as the desert is accessible to all who wish to enter and dwell therein, so too, no one is permitted to monopolize Torah knowledge or charge for its dissemination.

The alternate explanation is intensely psychological in nature. Making oneself hefker (ownerless) does not speak as much to the idea of an individual being owned by another, but rather the manner in which one views himself.

An individual who is "full of him/herself" will have difficulty accepting and following the directives of virtually any outside authority figure; consequently at least some degree of hitbatlut (self-abnegation) is expected of the truly spiritual individual. Being out in the desert powerfully contributes to an individual's sensibility that his or her existence is relatively insignificant when compared to the grandiose scale of Creation.

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Rabbi Jack Bieler

Rabbi Jack Bieler was appointed as Rabbi of the Kemp Mill Synagogue in 1993. He has published numerous articles on Jewish education and on issues facing Judaism today, especially concerning Modern Orthodoxy.