B’midbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20) A Wilderness of the Soul?

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“God spoke to Moses in the wilderness” (Numbers 1:1). These words begin our fourth Torah book. Commentators have often remarked on the root of both wilderness and spoke or words as deled, bet, resh; and thus asked the question, where do we “hear” God’s words? Our tradition spends a lot of time trying to comment and interpret the idea of the wilderness. Certainly, many of us have seen a wilderness, a physical place like the desert or vast expanses of uninhabited land. And, of course, we meet this concept throughout the Passover seder.

The wilderness also serves as the major symbol within our Jewish mindset. It is where we traveled in search of the Promised land and given the current crises, many have returned to this image of an eternal search for peace in a “promised” land. Yet, this image of the wilderness speaks also to a psycho-spiritual meaning, for the wilderness is also a metaphor for each of our own life journeys. Looking back on our life, have we at times, thought that we were alone in a wilderness? Rabbi Phillip Rice, in a recent Torah comment for the URJ noted this when he wrote that the portion “reflects the uncertain and adventurous human journey of every generation, including ours. The trials facing the Israelites as they trek across the wilderness for forty years, maturing as a people, mirror the obstacles, successes, and failures that we encounter in life as a people and as individuals.”

Does this portion, then, ask in some symbolic way how and where we encounter the Divine as we journey through our life? Is it and has it always been there and we were just, at various times in our life, unable or unwilling to see and hear? The portion sends us another message that speaks to this, and maybe to where we are in this stage of life. The first job in the portion is for Moses and Aaron to count the people, create a census. Each tribe was noted and assigned a place in the way the camp was developed, and at the center of the tribes was to be the Tabernacle.

Is the text asking us if, as we enter these life stages, the sense of the sacred, the Divine is at our center? Have we moved from the material to the spiritual and if so, how? Have we or do we give priority now to different things? As we traverse our own wilderness, in search of our own “promised” land, where do we place the sacred in our life? Or, as may be the case with some we know, how many, as we age, create their own wilderness of the soul and spirit?

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Richard F Address

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