B’midbar: The voice in the wilderness

In the wilderness (Illustrative photo © Elizabeth Topper 2016)

In the wilderness (Illustrative photo © Elizabeth Topper 2016)

We trudge through arid desert
on endless unmarked sand,
harsh sunlight all but blinding
bedazzled reddened eyes.

We climb up craggy inclines
seeking footholds in the rock
grazing skin of knees and palms
on hard unyielding stone.

A sudden silence hovers;
an eagle glides aloft
buttressed by what seems to be
the gentle breath of God.

Our eyes traverse the splendor
of the soaring mountain cliffs
intricately chiseled
and colored by His hand.

And in this place where earth meets sky
God’s voice is better heard.


In her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 1974, Annie Dillard reflects on faith, religion and awareness against the backdrop of the year she spent observing the flora and fauna at the creek, throughout the changing seasons of the year. Although some critics described the book as a nature book, Dillard herself is adamant that it is a theology book. She wrote her master’s thesis on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), in which Thoraeu describes a journey of self-discovery and a spiritual quest while living simply in the solitude of nature.

In a commentary on Parashat B’midbar from 2015, http://www.jtsa.edu/the-wilderness-speaks, Rabbi Daniel Nevins recalls a backpacking trip he made with a friend the summer after he graduated college. He describes a “euphoric beginning” with the sun shining on the lake as they were ferried deep into the woods. But the weather deteriorated and so did his mood. He describes inclement weather and physical discomfort. He remembers fantasizing about the hot soup and dry warm tent that would be awaiting them, instead of which they became wetter, colder, and his feet hurt. He wondered why he had left home. He continues, “When we enter the tortured world of Numbers, better named in Hebrew as Bemidbar — In the wilderness — I recall the discomfort of that journey and my inclination to self-pity. There is quite a bit of complaining in this book, as the Israelites schlep through the wilderness, making mistakes that lengthen their journey and deepen their problems. Yet the wilderness is also their place of revelation. True, its discomforts and exertions bring the people’s character flaws to the surface, but they also discern there the voice of God and their national mission…” Rabbi Nevins notes that later biblical texts offer differing perspectives of the Children of Israel in the wilderness. We read Jeremiah (2:2) likening the youthful love of the people for God, to a bride who follows her beloved into a desert land. But we also read in Psalms (95:10) of the people journeying through the wilderness and complaining all the way! He comments, “Both accounts appear to be true. The desert was a place of terror and complaint, but also a place of inspiration and love. Perhaps the challenges of the wilderness are a necessary discomfort for the revelations of the spirit. Second Isaiah, the prophet who seeks to reboot the covenant after the catastrophic destruction and exile, begins his words, “A voice cries out in the wilderness: ‘Make a path for the Lord!’” (Isa. 40:3). The wilderness speaks —hamidbar medaber — and generations of Jews have returned to its rugged isolation to discover the divine presence.”

Rabbi Nevins observes, though, that in later times, the Rabbis did not extol the virtues of being out in nature and the wilderness. Their spiritual life was more city-based. But he notes that we find in Pirkei Avot (6:2), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that every day a voice cries out from Mount Horeb (Sinai): “Woe to those creatures who have contempt for Torah. Rabbi Nevins ponders this strange statement. He wonders why the Divine voice would continue to call out in the wilderness when the people are no longer there. He says, “In a midrash, Rabbi Levi explains by way of parable: “If a person loses a gem, where will they go to find it? They will return to the place where they lost it.” (Aggadat Bereshit, 68).”So, too,” continues Rabbi Nevins, “did God “lose” Israel in the wilderness when the spies led them to demand a return to Egypt. And since it was in the wilderness that God lost Israel, it is in the wilderness that God waits and calls out for Israel to return.”

He notes that the wilderness is not an easy place in which to be: it can be frightening, subject to extremes of heat and cold, with scarce resources of food and especially water, and a place of potential encounters with dangerous animals. A minor mishap, he adds, can turn into a life-threatening emergency. So, he says, we should go well-prepared, as we read the people tried to be. Rabbi Nevins notes that this week’s parashah opens by describing how they set forth on their desert journey with orderly preparations. “Moses is like a scoutmaster, preparing his charges for the rigors of the road. There is a census, and then a detailed description of the arrangement of the camp, replete with visual imagery of colorful pennants under which our ancestors marched. They were well organized in the beginning — as befits the start of an expedition — but in this book, the people of Israel will repeatedly break ranks, betray one another, and turn on their leaders. The farther Israel gets from Sinai, the fainter grows its inspiring message and the louder grow their voices of doubt and fear.”

Rabbi Nevins adds, “If God lost Israel in the wilderness, and God waits there for us still, then we, too, ought to leave the comforts of home at times and visit the wilderness, the midbar. In towns and cities we build ornate structures of religious life, and indeed, Judaism flourishes in urban settings. But it is in the wilderness that we can hear the divine voice and remember our purpose as people and as Jews. The wilderness speaks — hamidbar medaber— and in it a person may discern the voice of God. In the wilderness, the Torah may reveal itself once more. So, too, did my miserable trek on that ridge in the Cascades yield to magical moments. That Shabbat we camped on a little island in the middle of a rushing stream, and in its pulsing voice, I felt the presence of our Creator.”

“As the weather warms, it is time to seek out wild places, experience the raw power of God’s world, and listen for the divine call.

And finally, Rabbi Nevins says that ever since Sinai, the people of Israel have walked away from the mountain where once God’s voice called out to them. We have distanced ourselves from the wilderness and largely settled in urban surroundings. But every year on Shavuot, he says, we turn back towards the mountain of God. This week we begin the book of B’midbar, with its “wild and petulant pages” and he says, “[we] imagine ourselves back in the wilderness, returning to the mountain of the Lord.” Very soon, we will also celebrate Shavuot, the holiday on which we re-enact the revelation at Mount Sinai. Rabbi Nevins concludes, “Around midnight on Shavuot eve, let us try to wake up and listen closely, opening ourselves once more to hear the voice of God.”

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