D’Var Torah

Bamidbar, 5784 (June 8, 2024)

Rabbi Micah Friedman

     Of the 5 books of the Torah, the fourth book which we began to read today is definitively the most confusing and meandering. Even the names by which the book is known invoke the effort of the Israelites to create some sense of order in a world of disorder. Therefore, as we journey together through the book of BaMidbar over the course of the coming months, we can explore how we may be able to bring order to our lives in this confusing and chaotic time in the world as well as how – even when we may fall short of bringing order to chaos, we can find stability and comfort in the G-d’s presence with us.

     In most modern Hebrew writing this fourth book of the Torah is known as “Sefer BaMidbar” the book of “In the Wilderness” or “In the Desert.” While BaMidbar isn’t the only book of the Torah set in the desert, unlike any other of the books of the Humash, BaMidbar takes place entirely in the wilderness, as the Israelites wander from one location to another, launch one complaint after another at Moses and G-d, and are afflicted by several deadly plagues. So, this name is apt and reflects the qualities of wandering, worry, and uncertainty that fill its words.

     This name also follows the standard naming procedure for the books of the Torah: calling the book after one of the first substantive words of the book. The first book is called Bereishit – in the Beginning – after the first word of the first verse. The second book is called Shemot – literally “names” – since it begins with “these are names of the children of Israel who descended to Egypt. The third book is called VaYikra – and he called – since it begins with a call – an invitation – issued by G-d to Moses. This book is subsequently titled “BaMidbar” – in the Wilderness – since in the first verse, the first detail of context we encounter is that G-d speaks to Moses “In the wilderness” from the tent of meeting.

     However, the book of BaMidbar has also been known by a different name in Hebrew since ancient times and this name reflects the particular mitzvah that opens the book. We are commanded to count the head of each of the children of Israel. Therefore, the book is alternatively titled “Sefer haPekudim” – the book of the counted – and, several times over the course of the book the Jewish people are counted. It is by this name that many of the classical commentators on the Torah refer to the book, and this same central theme is the reason for the Greek name which has become English:
“The Book of Numbers.”

     Beneath the surface of these countings, we can identify the great tragedy of the book of BaMidbar. Though the numbers of the children of Israel grow through their time in the desert, none of the men who escaped slavery in Egypt in the Exodus survive to the end of the book of BaMidbar, with the notable exceptions of Moses (who delivers Deuteronomy as his final testament) and the two successful scouts of the land Caleb and Joshua. The entire generation of the wilderness passes away before reaching their destination, leaving their children and grandchildren to carry on their legacy.

     This is, of course, the human condition in every generation. Each generation comes and goes, both continuing the journey begun before we were born and leaving much to be carried forward by those left behind.

     The struggle, however, is becoming willing to accept our limited role in this process, in this world of the living. How can we come to terms with the reality that – even if we set but on a great exodus in our lifetime – we spend much of our days carrying on a journey we will not see the end of?

     The children of Israel in the desert struggle to accept this existential reality. They complain and rebel in an understandable way. They yearn for safety, comfort, and stability – as we all do. And, G-d and Moses try to meet these
needs as best as they can while also insisting that the collective – the people of Israel – continue on our particular holy path of service to G-d and the world.

     In this context, this bewildering environment of the wilderness, that we receive the most important spiritual charge of the Jewish people, a spiritual charge which we will relive this Tuesday night through Thursday – the receiving of the Torah. Of course, the Torah is given and received at Mt. Sinai which is within the Wilderness of Sinai – Midbar Sinai. Therefore, Jewish interpreters have long maintained that there is a special character of the Midbar which is necessary for revelation. Some have claimed it is within the word itself: BaMidbar contains the letters ר – ב – ד which spell Davar (word) and Dibbur (speech.)

     Perhaps, this comes to teach us that precisely in the scary and uncertain environment of the wilderness where we can hear and speak words of wisdom to guide us in our journeys. As we begin this book of wilderness and prepare for the festival of the giving of the Torah, may we be blessed with the trust that we will find words to guide us on our path, even through the greatest uncertainties.

Shabbat Shalom.