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Covenant & Conversation

Bemidbar (5768) – The Wilderness and the Word


The Lord spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting in the wilderness of Sinai on the first day of the second month of the second year after the Israelites came out of Egypt.

The fourth book of the Bible is known in English as the Book of Numbers – because it begins with a command to count the Israelites, to take a census, to establish their numbers. However in Hebrew it is known by the key word of its first sentence, Bemidbar, “In the wilderness.” It is also always read on the Shabbat before Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah. Is there any significance to these facts? Are they related? Is there a connection between wilderness, revelation and numbers? And is there a reason Jewish tradition preferred to call the book ‘Wilderness’ rather than ‘Numbers’?

The Hebrew word midbar, wilderness, has the same root as the word dabar/davar, meaning “word” or “thing.” It has the same letters as medabber, “speaking.” It is in the wilderness that the Israelites hear revelation, the word or speaking of G-d.

Fundamental to Judaism is the belief that G-d cannot be seen. For every ancient faith but one, the gods were present in the phenomena of nature: the sun, the stars, the sky, the sea. They were visible; things seen. In Israel a revolutionary idea reached expression, that G-d was beyond nature: When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, The moon and the stars which you have set in place . . .

The vast universe is no more than the work of G-d’s fingers. Everything we can see is not G-d but merely the work of G-d. Hence the repeated prohibitions in Judaism against making an image or icon. To Judaism, the idea that G-d is visible is idolatry. G-d is beyond the totality of things seen.

But how then can He be perceived? In Judaism for the first time revelation becomes a problem. For every other culture, revelation is self-evident. Where are the gods? All around us. In polytheism, the gods are close. In Judaism, G-d – vast beyond our imagining – would seem to be infinitely distant. The answer Judaism gave was beautiful and world-transforming. G-d who transcends nature is close, because He exists not in things seen, but in words heard:

The pagan perceives the divine in nature through the medium of the eye, and he becomes conscious of it has something to be looked at. On the other hand, to the Jew who conceives G-d as being outside of nature and prior to it, the Divine manifests itself through the will and through the medium of the ear. He becomes conscious of it as something to be heeded and listened to. The pagan beholds his god; the Jew hears Him, that is, apprehends his will. (Heinrich Graetz, The Construction of Jewish History) While almost every other civilisation has been a culture of the eye, Judaism is a culture of the ear – of words, speech, listening, interpreting, understanding, heeding.

Even Sigmund Freud, otherwise hostile to religion, could not avoid being impressed by this idea: Among the precepts of Mosaic religion is one that has more significance than is at first obvious. It is the prohibition against making an image of G-d, which means the compulsion to worship an indivisible god . . . [This] was bound to exercise a profound influence. For it signified subordinating sense perception to an abstract idea; it was a triumph of spirituality over the senses; more precisely, an instinctual renunciation accompanied by its psychologically necessary consequences . . . It was certainly one of the most important stages on the way to becoming human. (Moses and Monotheism)

A revolution of this magnitude cannot take place under ordinary circumstances. In the great river lowlands where civilization began (the Tigris-Euphrates and the Nile) the eye is captivated by the shifting scenes of nature; in cities by the works of man – art and architecture. Only in the emptiness of the wilderness is the eye subordinate to the ear. Only in the silence of the desert, can the sound beneath sound be heard: In Hebrew thought, Book and Desert are contingent upon one another. When G-d revealed himself to Moses and charged him with the task of freeing the Hebrews, terms such as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ were not used. The idea of emancipation from bondage is expressed as “going on a three days’ journey into the desert, to sacrifice to G-d our Lord,” (Ex. 3: 19; 5:3) as if G-d could not be apprehended without this initial journey into the desert. (Jose Faur, Golden Doves with Silver Dots) Or as Edmond Jabes puts it: The word cannot dwell except in the silence of other words. To speak is, accordingly, to lean on a metaphor of the desert, a space of dust or ashes, where the triumphant word is offered in her unrestricted nudity. (Du Desert au Livre)

The historian Eric Voegelin sees this as fundamental to the discovery by the Israelites of a completely new form of spirituality: If nothing had happened but a lucky escape from the range of Egyptian power, there only would have been a few more nomadic tribes roaming the border zone between the Fertile Crescent and the desert proper, eking out a meagre living with the aid of part-time agriculture. But the desert was only a station on the way, not the goal; for in the desert the tribes found their G-d. They entered into a covenant with him, and thereby became his people . . .

When we undertake the exodus and wander into the world, in order to found a new society elsewhere, we discover the world as the Desert. The flight leads nowhere, until we stop in order to find our bearings beyond the world. When the world has become Desert, man is at last in the solitude in which he can hear thunderingly the voice of the spirit that with its urgent whispering has already driven and rescued him from Sheol [the domain of death]. In the Desert G-d spoke to the leader and his tribes; in the desert, by listening to the voice, by accepting its offer, and by submitting to its command, they had at last reached life and became the people chosen by G-d.

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons Judaism has no counterpart to the word ‘secular’ – a word derived from the Latin seculum, meaning ‘the world.’ In Western civilization, religion is unworldly or otherworldly. No such concept could exist in Judaism. G-d is not set over and against the world, nor is religion a retreat from the world. Instead the opposite of kadosh, holy, is chol, which literally means sand. Sand is what the holy is not. It blows this way and that, never stable, or rooted, or capable of sustaining life. The first Psalm sets this out with dazzling clarity: Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked . . . But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.

Chol is a desert metaphor, one of many in the Bible. G-d is a rock (immovable, the opposite of sand); His word is like water; those who heed it are like a tree or a growing plant. In Moses’ great song at the end of his life all these images come together in a single poetic sweep: Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants. I will proclaim the name of the LORD . Oh, praise the greatness of our G-d! He is the Rock, his works are perfect . . .

Not by accident therefore did the rabbis choose to call the fourth book Bamidbar. There is an intrinsic connection between the desert, midbar, and G-d who reveals himself in speech, medabber.

What then of the census with which the book begins? There is a mystical Jewish tradition that every Jew is like a letter in the scroll of the Torah – and in Jewish law, if there is a single letter missing, the scroll is defective. Every letter is significant. Speaking about the census in this week’s sedra, Sefat Emet (R. Yehudah Arye Leib of Gur) says that the reason it is included in the Torah is to teach us that “every Jew has some specific task to perform for G-d, and for that reason he was created.” Maharsha goes further. There were, he says, 600,000 people who received the Torah, because the Torah has 600,000 possible interpretations. The reason it was given to an entire people is so that it would contain all possible holy meanings.

This idea, or something close to it, was developed by the French philosopher Levinas: It is as if the multiplicity of persons – and is this not the very meaning of personal? — were the prerequisite for the fullness of absolute truth, as if each person, by his uniqueness, ensured the revelation of a unique aspect of truth, and that some of its aspects would never be revealed if some members of humanity were missing. This suggests that the totality of truth is made up of the contributions of multiple persons; the uniqueness of each reaction bearing the secret of the text; the voice of Revelation precisely in as much as it is inflected by the ear of each person, would be necessary for the Whole of Truth.

Each individual is a letter. Each contributes to the totality of the Torah’s meaning. Each of us hears in its words a particular message that only we can hear.

As soon as we have connected the census with the idea of revelation, a dazzling possibility discloses itself. Normally, censuses are dehumanizing. They are taken as a measure of the nation’s strength, which exists in and through numbers. The more numerous a nation, the more powerful it is. But that is to reduce the mass of mankind to a mere statistic. I am here, but if I were not, someone else could substitute for me. The most dehumanizing act the Nazis did to inmates of the concentration camps was to rob them of their names and instead give them a number. To be a mere number is no longer to be human. Where the ultimate reality is power, what matters is the totality, not the individual. Judaism is a sustained protest against this idea. Hence the famous statement in the Mishnah, that a single life is like a universe.

The Torah uses a strange locution when speaking about counting the Israelites. Hebrew has many verbs that mean ‘to count’ – limnot, lispor, lachshov, lifkod – but here it uses the phrase se’u et rosh, literally, ‘lift the head.’ We now understand why. The purpose of a biblical census was not to quantify but to affirm the worth of each individual in the totality of Torah and a society constructed around the idea of the holy. Normally a census turns us into a mere number. The biblical census – G-d’s count, as it were – turns us into a letter in the scroll, significant in its own right, so that if one is missing the whole is invalid. That is why the word ‘Numbers’ is precisely wrong as the title of a biblical book. In the wilderness, where there is no empire or economy to sustain, we become beings in our own right, not troops or a work force, man-in-the-mass. We are no longer a number but a person in the image of G-d.

Thus bamidbar, “in the wilderness,” Israel heard the medabber, the-One-who-reveals-Himself-in-words, and learned that G-d speaks not only collectively to a nation but to each individual as one with a unique contribution to make to the life of the nation.

The way to the Holy Land lies through the wilderness. It is there that the Israelites learned what it is to build a society that will be the anti-type of Egypt, not an empire built on power, but a society of individuals of equal dignity under the sovereignty of G-d. An impossible task? Certainly not an easy one. But to quote Eric Voegelin again: “What emerged from the alembic of the Desert was not a people like the Egyptians or Babylonians, that Canaanites or Philistines, the Hittites or Arameans, but a new genus of society, set off from the civilizations of the age by the Divine choice. It was a people that moved on the historical scene while living toward a goal beyond history. “

In the desert, they heard the Word and became the people of the Word.