This Shabbat we come to the beginning of the 4th book of Torah: Numbers. Our long journey in the wilderness continues in this book which takes its’ name from the Hebrew “Bemidbar”, often translated as “in the wilderness”. God speaks to the Israelites “Bemidbar”, from the “Tent of Meeting”. They are asked to take a census. The drama of the wilderness experience continues. The search for the “promised land” slowly but surely moves on. As many commentators–and every Passover seder leader has mentioned–the Wilderness is THE metaphor for us, not only as a people, but, even more powerfully, each of us.
The idea of our searching for meaning and purpose is a traditional theme of our Jewish heritage as well as one that is often found in other cultures and certainly psycho-spiritual literature. A cursory read of people like Heschel, or Buber or Frankl, to name a few; will reveal this idea. I suggest that it is all to be found in how we see ourself in the symbolism of the wilderness and wandering.We are all, in a very real sense, I believe, searching in life for that sense of our own “promised land”. Many never see it. Many find that sense of peace, only after having sacrificed long held beliefs and ideals.
One of the other great teachers of this idea of seeking meaning in a life situation may be how one struggles with illness. I recall Susan Sontag’s work from years ago when she wrote of illness as a metaphor. In seeking healing, we really seek a type of “promised land”, a goal not found without some ebb and flow, some doubt and struggle. I think it is one of the most brilliant ideas of Judaism that we find in the daily “Amidah” the prayer for healing in which we pray for healing, but not for cure. The rabbis seem to understand that healing is its’ own spiritual journey, not unlike the trek that we embrace within Torah. So, a lesson from “Bemidbar”: may all of searches for meaning bring us spiritual peace and a healing of the soul.
Rabbi Richard F Address