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.

Love & Fear

This would appear to be precisely what Maimonides was thinking when he offered a practical means by which one can achieve both the love and fear of God (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot, Yesodei Hatorah 2:2):

 "And what is the way to love Him (God) and fear Him? When a person reflects upon His Actions and His great and wondrous creations and he sees within them His wisdom that is beyond comprehension, immediately he loves and praises and extols and is consumed with an overwhelming passion to know the Great God…

But when he thinks further about these very things themselves, immediately he trembles, stumbles backwards and is terrified, and he realizes that he is a tiny, lowly, insignificant creature standing with a puny inferior intellect before the perfect intellect…"       

Humility in the Desert

The figurative symbolism of receiving the Torah in the desert appears to parallel a number of other rabbinic themes stressing humility and self-abnegation as a prerequisite for an individual to properly understand and carry out the Commandments of God. Moses, the intermediary between God and the people when the Torah is first given, is described as (Numbers 12:3) "Anav me'od mikol ha-adam asher al penai ha-adama"--the most extremely humble individual on the face of the earth.

Not only does God's revelation to Moses take place in the desert, but God chooses to speak to this prophet from the midst of a burning bramble bush, interpreted by R. Eliezer (Exodus Rabbah 2:5): "Just as the bush is the most lowly of shrubbery in the world, so too were the Jews lowly and subjugated to Egypt." The symbol of the burning bush thereby equates Moses, the Jews, and the bush as sharing the quality of lowliness.

Even Mt. Sinai, upon which God descended and Moses ascended in order to receive the Ten Commandments and the entire corpus of Jewish law, is categorized as the lowest of mountains (Sota 5a).

Historically, the desert has been a place that has attracted visionaries and groups of individuals who felt that the materialism and corruption of urban societies prevented them from communing with God and developing their spiritual capacities.

The Torah suggests that God orchestrated the Jews' going into the desert because the atmosphere created in such desolate and lonely surroundings would be extremely conducive for the entire nation to abandon the example of their previous malevolent flesh-and-blood masters. Instead, the belittling impact of the desert would inspire them to focus upon serving humbly and selflessly the Creator of the Universe.

Following in the footsteps of those redeemed from the bondage of Egypt, we must attempt to reconnect with the open spaces of the wilderness and seek in their natural fashioning a source of awakening to the Mastery of God, to access the free inspiration of the Divine therein, and to become a little more "ownerless"--in order that we can internalize lessons and truths that were previously beyond us.

Suggested Action Items:

1. Reconnect with any desert or other grandiose natural setting that is accessible to you. Keep in mind the lessons mentioned here about one's minute place in the grand creation.

2. Take steps to help preserve a natural setting near you. You can contribute your time or money to clean-up projects of nearby mountains, lakes, or forests, or you can remind yourself and others to hike responsibly, by not damaging the valuable habitat you visit.

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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.