Bamidbar/The Desert An Opportunity to Flourish
The Rabbis ask in the Pesikta d’Rav Kahana:
Why was the Torah given in the desert? To teach us that if a person does not surrender himself to it like the desert, he cannot merit the words of Torah. And to teach us that just as the desert is endless, so is the Torah without end.
This week we are starting to read the Book of Numbers. The reason this book got its name is because there are lots of numbers in it. And as a matter of fact, you can also find there two demographic censuses. Tomorrow, we will talk about numbers! Today I’d like to focus on the Hebrew name that was given to this book. Bamidbar, in the wilderness or in the desert. I’d like to invite you to explore the connection between 3 elements.
Kabbalat Torah – Receiving the Torah
& Haaretz Hamuvtachat- the promised land.
It is well known that Kabbalat Torah, receiving the Torah, is an obligatory step in order to get to the Promised land. What we might miss is that the desert is also a preliminary and obligatory step in order to receive Torah.
And you know the desert doesn’t always look like a resort in Palm Springs, the desert can be a scary place… There is no water or food, the weather is hostile, and the landscape makes it complicated for navigation. After some time there, people could have hallucinations or violent reactions.
Torah recognizes the hostility of the desert but also presents it as a place of opportunity. Exodus 3:4 “VeHasne einunu ukal” And when Hashem saw that he turned aside to see, Elohim called out unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moshe, Moshe. And he said, Hineni.
God’s revelation to Moses took place in the desert and that’s not a mere coincidence.
Emptiness is a great tool for spiritual work, and the desert is filled with emptiness. In his book Meditation and The Bible, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan speaks about the desert as the place that allows the hitbodedut, the isolation required in order to practice meditation.
In other words, when we are too filled with ourselves there we have no space to receive anything. Receiving the Torah requires some level of emptiness.
But there is a second level to this equation and it is that these 3 steps aren’t linear. The sequence isn’t that we empty ourselves – desert, we get inspiration – receive the Torah, and eventually, after these two steps we make it to the promised land – we conquer our dreams. That would be a very mathematical approach to life and we know that in life 1+1 isn’t necessarily 2. The promised land isn’t a status; it rather may be a moment, a second… How many times have you felt that you were touching heaven with your own hands and maybe minutes afterwards you found yourself in the middle of the desert!?
The truth is that our individual, congregational and even national aspirations change with the time, our dreams change. The idea of what is the promised land changes as well. We need the honesty and the courage to renew our dreams because otherwise, we might be in the situation in which we say that we are in the promised land when the reality of what we feel is that we are in the most hostile desert. Being lost in the desert can be a tragedy, but walking in the desert with purpose can be life changing experience.
The challenge then would be to embrace the desert; to recognize the opportunity for emptiness, for meditation, for spiritual work, in order to open our hearts and to walk again toward the promised land.
As the holiday of Shavuot arrives may we be blessed with the opportunity to recognize and embrace our internal desert, may we allow ourselves the required emptiness in order to receive Torah and may we be inspired to walk with faith toward our dreams.