In this third parashah of the Book BaMidbar, we are finally on the move; after over a year camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, after receiving the Torah, constructing the Mishkan, organizing the priestly sacrificial system, and learning a lot of halakhah on how to maintain the appropriate atmosphere for the Mishkan in our midst, this week we read of the Israelites actually picking up and starting out on their way to the Land promised in our Covenant. BaMidbar means “in the wilderness”, and this book describes the preponderance of our ancestors’ adventures as they journey through it.
Imagine yourself in their place on the first morning that they began to move, with their families, their herds, and their flocks. If you have never explored the Sinai wilderness, here is an indication of what surrounds you: Sinai. You may have many questions about the trip (imagine the young children: “when will we get there?”), about oases, grazing land, and more, but first: in what direction are you to go? How do you stay oriented? How to know which caravan path will lead you the correct way?
You’d activate your GPS of course; no worries. The ancient Israelites did not have GPS, but they had something even more certain: the Presence of G-d, manifested as “a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night”.
Whenever the cloud was taken up from over the Tent, then after that the children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel encamped (Numbers 9.17)
That was it: when the cloud moved, follow it. When it rested, set up the tents and make camp. The next thirty-nine years are to pass in this way. There is evidence in the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures) that, throughout the ages of Israelite dwelling in the Land of Israel, our ancestors somehow longed for this earlier time, which they saw as, simple, pure, and ideal. The Prophet Jeremiah expressed the feeling with the marriage metaphor commonly used for our Covenant with G-d?
I remember for you the affection of your youth, the love of our engagement; how you followed after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown. (Jeremiah 2.2)
All human beings, at some point in our lives, long for such certainty; we would all love to know exactly how to make our way through the world. It’s not wonder that our ancestors looked back at that time as an ideal – although in the weeks ahead we will read of many disruptions to the harmony that they preferred to remember.
The word bamidbar, “in the wilderness”, may be interpreted in a way that speaks directly to us, we who also wander, not perhaps geographically, but in other ways just as profound. With different vowels, the word may be understood as referring to speech – to words. And this is the wilderness in which we often find ourselves seeking clarity of direction: in a wilderness of words, of spoken, written, radioed, emailed, texted, printed….transmitted in so many ways, how are we to find our way through it all? When we are barraged by information about a candidate or a cause, for example, how do we discern which words most help us to find our way toward a decision regarding the person or the matter at hand? Which words are dead ends, and which lead toward promise?
The Israelites didn’t follow that pillar for thirty-nine years mindlessly; they encountered challenges which they attempted to learn how to answer using the guidance G-d offered through mitzvot such as those found in Mishpatim: keep your word, respect other’s wells, help your neighbor with her burden, and offer others the respect you expect for yourself.
We may not have a pillar that clearly guides us forward, but we still have access to the ethical GPS that has guided our people since those early wanderings. It can guide us just as clearly as we face our own challenges. That’s the gift offered through Torah study: over and over again, we bring our questions to Torah, and as we “turn it over and over again” we find that “….everything is in it”. Most wonderful of all, in this wandering we are not ever alone, for we’ve learned that the only way to follow that pillar is together, holding hands and stepping forth into the world.