We begin the Book of Numbers this Shabbat. The Torah’s fourth book continues the story of the Wilderness and the slow unfolding of the Israelites journey to that “promised” land. The opening section of Numbers looks at a call to take a census of the community (Numbers 1) and the portion concludes with more instructions regarding the priesthood. Yet, the first verse reminds us of a very powerful symbol, for God spoke to Moses, we are told in verse 1, “in the wilderness” (b’midbar). There is a famous Midrash that asks why the Torah was given in the wilderness and not in the Promised land. The Midrash tells us that in doing so Torah became accessible to all people and not just the province of one segment of the people. Every time we study Torah, regardless of our background, we live this belief.
How do we hear these words? Another interpretation of this passage looks at the work for wilderness, “midbar” and notes that it contains the word “davar”, which means word. We, according to tradition, heard the “word” of God in the wilderness. Indeed, going to the wilderness is a recurring theme in other religions as well, one goes there to commune with God, or seek answers, to remove ones self from the norm. But play with that concept for a bit and you may be able to also see other meanings.
As we get older, how do we understand this concept of the wilderness? Is it a wilderness of the self? Do we know people who retreat from life as they age and cut themselves off from life itself? That wilderness of the soul is self destructive and filled with dread. We also know people who, as they get older, seek and find a sense of quiet and peace, a self assuredness that comes with life review and reflection, mixed with gratitude and self awareness. It is an acceptance of the blessings of living, it is a type of wilderness that allows for a quiet confidence and an understanding of the gifts of being alive. This is the wilderness of self awareness that makes life even more precious. Do we allow ourselves to hear that “still small voice” that calls to us each day? Do we take time, in this hyperactive, over stimulating world, to stop and reflect, to perhaps retreat into a wilderness of self that allows us to “hear” the word of Torah that gives us strength and soulful sustenance?
It is quiet in that wilderness. Yet, within that quiet is the voice of our own soul if we but are open to listen.
Rabbi Richard F Address