Bemidbar 5784

Greetings from Atlanta! As I sit at the airport, getting ready to return to Australia, this trip, much like the wilderness that we find the Israelites in, is a time for reflection, renewal, and reconnection with loved ones.

This week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar, meaning “In the Wilderness,” opens the fourth book of the Torah. The word “wilderness” is not just a geographic term but a profound symbol of spiritual significance in Jewish tradition. The wilderness, or “midbar” in Hebrew, serves as a backdrop for divine encounters and transformative experiences.

Bemidbar begins with the Israelites encamped in the Sinai Desert, where God commands Moses to take a census of the people. This setting is more than a mere location; it represents a state of openness and vulnerability, a transitional space where the Israelites, freed from Egyptian bondage, begin to forge their identity as God’s chosen people.

The theme of the wilderness as a place of encountering the Divine is evident throughout the Torah. Key figures often retreat to the wilderness to experience profound moments of revelation and transformation.

Moses’ first encounter with God occurs in the wilderness. While tending his father-in-law’s sheep, he comes upon the burning bush at Mount Horeb (Exodus 3:1-2). This transformative moment sets Moses on his path to becoming the leader of the Israelites, emphasising how the wilderness is a place of divine revelation and calling.

The prophet Elijah also has a significant wilderness experience. After fleeing from Queen Jezebel, Elijah journeys into the wilderness and eventually reaches Mount Horeb, where he encounters God in a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12). This episode highlights the wilderness as a place of refuge and divine communication, where one can hear God’s voice away from the noise of civilization.

The Israelites’ 40-year journey through the wilderness is central to their identity. After escaping Egypt, they wander in the desert, where they receive the Torah at Mount Sinai and learn to rely on God’s provision of manna and water. This period is marked by divine guidance through a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The wilderness serves as a testing ground and a space for spiritual growth, shaping the Israelites into a covenantal community.

The wilderness in Jewish thought carries rich symbolic meaning:

1. **Purification and Testing**: The wilderness is a place of purification and testing. Rashi comments on Deuteronomy 8:2, explaining that the Israelites’ journey was meant to humble and test them, revealing what was truly in their hearts.

2. **Divine Encounter**: The wilderness represents a space devoid of distractions, where individuals can encounter God directly. Sforno notes that it was in this barren environment that Israel received the Torah, free from the distractions of civilization.

3. **Dependence on God**: The Israelites’ survival in the wilderness underscores their reliance on God for sustenance. Nachmanides (Ramban) emphasises that this dependence was crucial in forging their faith and identity as God’s people.

The wilderness is not just a physical space but a metaphor for life’s transitions and challenges. It reminds us to embrace these moments as opportunities for spiritual growth and deeper connections with the Divine. As I reconnect with family and navigate this journey, I am reminded of the Israelites’ journey and the profound encounters that can occur when we step into the unknown.

Parshat Bemidbar teaches us that the wilderness is a place of divine encounter, transformation, and growth. Whether in the deserts of Sinai or the journey from Australia to Atlanta, embracing the wilderness moments in our lives can lead to profound spiritual and personal revelations.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *