On this Shabbat morning we will share the beginning of a new book of the Torah: BaMidbar. The book is known in English as “Numbers,” a reference to the initial content. But the Hebrew name is more interesting: the root of the word is ד.ב.ר – d.v.r – and it is a pillar of the language. Davar means “thing” or “word”, underscoring the reality that for our ancestors, a word was a thing. HaShem’s word was embodied in messengers, angels that carried out a Word.
When Shabbat ends tomorrow evening we will begin observing the Festival of Shavuot, upon which we commemorate Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah, symbolized by the Sinai moment recorded in parashat Yitro when we experienced Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Words. Notice the d.b.r root there (b and v are both expressions of the letter ב ).
On this Shabbat the Torah relates our gearing up to move away from Sinai and into the wilderness – which is the meaning of the Hebrew name of the book. From this we can derive that the wilderness through which our ancestors wander is made up of both things (mountains, scorpions, heat, rocks, trees, oases, other people) and words (reassurance, whining, gossip, stories, lullabies, and of course Moshe relaying the Word of HaShem).
An interesting midrash told about our experience at Sinai describes how the Ten Words uttered out of the Eternal into time had such a huge physical impact upon those who were present that they were pushed backward; some say a few yards, others say many miles (BT Shabbat 88b). Such a moment of Existence is not easy – even positive stress is stress, as a therapist can confirm. Another midrash, more frightening, recounts that the Israelites died under the strain, and HaShem had to quickly revive them (Shemot Rabbah 29.3).
We ourselves are buffeted about just as badly by the words, and the things, we encounter in our own daily wandering. Manipulative lies erode our trust in communication; cruel words on social media cause despair and even suicide among the vulnerable. In our society, too many of us turn to loading up on things, not realizing that the root of both words and things is the same reality: too much stimulus, overwhelming input, and overload of the heart and mind. The mind is assaulted and the heart rebels. Anxiety can cause us to misunderstand and withdraw from each other.
Torah, of course, has an insight for that: one cannot survive alone. Our ancestors were organized in the best way to keep them all safe in the wandering that was their lot. In one verse we derive much wisdom:
אִ֣ישׁ עַל־דִּגְל֤וֹ בְאֹתֹת֙ לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֔ם יַחֲנ֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל מִנֶּ֕גֶד סָבִ֥יב לְאֹֽהֶל־מוֹעֵ֖ד יַחֲנֽוּ׃
The Israelites shall camp, each with their flag, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting. (BaMidbar 2.2)
- Stand under your flag – know who you are and where you stand. This is an especially poignant teaching as we begin the celebration of Pride month – we all, Queer, Trans, Cis, Straight, and Questioning – need to be able to show our colors as we discern them, and to celebrate them.
- Camp with your ancestral house – to what family does your spirit belong? These times are not safe for us to wander as individuals. This is a challenge for those in identity transition. Sometimes we follow the group, but over time we learn that one must know one’s own heart to survive the hurricane of words and things that we must find our way through.
- Keep the Ohel in sight – the Ohel Mo’ed is the structure which we create in order to meet holiness when we need it. Make sure to keep it in sight, wherever you find rest for your feet: don’t lose sight of the core values that steady us and keep us grounded in these times. It’s in holding on to – and upholding – the values we say are important that we will find meaning despite the difficulties of our days.
Times are not easy for Jews, as for many other targeted communities. Now is the time to consider where you camp. Torah is only a gift for you if you have truly found yourself able to join in the words we chant every Shabbat:
עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר׃
It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it,
and those who bolster it are fortunate.
דְּרָכֶ֥יהָ דַרְכֵי־נֹ֑עַם וְֽכׇל־נְתִ֖יבוֹתֶ֣יהָ שָׁלֽוֹם׃
Its ways are ways of pleasantness
and all of its paths are peace. (Proverbs 3.18,17)
May you find the pleasantness and the peace in your path, and keep the purpose always in sight.