Emanuel Synagogue

Lessons from the Desert

This week we begin a new book of the Torah. In English, the book is called “Numbers” because it begins with a census. In Hebrew however, the book is called “Bamidbar,” “in the wilderness.” In our tradition, we choose to name the books of the Torah by a significant word from the first sentence in the parashah, in this instance, Bamidbar, and more than just labelling the parashah, it reflects the entire book of the Torah. It is also special that we begin the book of Bamidbar on the Shabbat before Shavuot, the festival where we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

When the rabbis reflected upon the events at Sinai, they asked why God chose to give the Torah in the desert. It was no accident, they suggest, the choice of the desert was deliberate and significant, for the desert had much to teach the Israelites. The fact, that the giving of the Torah and the Israelites’ wanderings happened in the desert, was central to the story of our people and formative in shaping who we were to become. Far from being incidental, the fact that these events happened in the desert was highly significant to the creation of the people.

The Israelites found themselves in the wilderness, the midbar, after their escape from slavery. They were struggling to become free, to remove the shackles of their oppression in Egypt and become a community and a nation. The years in the wilderness were a time of healing, a time when the people who had suffered so much, learned what it meant to be masters of their own destiny. And to do that they needed to be in the midbar, in the wilderness. The desert nurtured and protected them, it sheltered them from the storms of the city life, its pressures and its intensity. It provided them with a new outlook, it taught them important lessons which we would do well to learn.

The desert is not what it first seems, it takes time to know and understand. There is life teeming in the wilderness, there is food, there is water but you have to take time to feel the silence, to hear the whispers of the wind, to find the true desert. It is the same with life and relationships. There is goodness and beauty in people but sometimes we do not take the time to know them and see the beauty. We judge without seeing the life teeming beneath the surface. The wilderness taught the Israelites and it teaches us, to take the time to look, to see and to feel.

The wilderness also teaches the importance of community, of being together and working as one towards a common goal. There, everyone was equal, the Israelites had to rely on one another, to work together, to recognise the strengths and qualities of one another and then to harness them for the community. The desert taught us to be more than ourselves, it showed us the strength and beauty of community.

And more than anything else, the wilderness gave us time. Time to escape the noise and frenetic pace of life in Egypt, time to think, to rest and to just be. Many of us are working at an unsustainable pace and we are not pausing for rest or for moments of silence. We go from one activity to another, without finding time for leisure, for family, for fun. We are overworked, stressed and unhappy. We did not learn the lesson of the wilderness, we have not stopped long enough to hear the silence. The Israelites heard the voice of God in the desert. It was only when they were able to stop that they could really hear. It is no accident that the letters in the word midbar are the same as the word medaber, to speak. It is in the openness, the expanse and the vast majesty of the midbar that we are able to hear the voice of God and one another. The Children of Israel learned the magic and incredible beauty of the midbar, they found holiness even in what seems to be one of the most desolate of places on earth because they learned the lessons of the desert. They learned to look closely and see what is beneath the surface, to take time to listen, hear and feel and they learned the importance of caring for themselves and others. May we too learn the lessons of the midbar.

Shabat Shalom

Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio