PARSHAT BEMIDBAR

IN THE DESERT

“On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting.”  (Numbers 1:1)

            This week we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah.  In English it is called Numbers, because in begins with a detailed census of the people Israel.  In Hebrew it is called Bemidbar, translated “in the wilderness,” or perhaps “in the desert.”  It centers on the forty years that the Israelites wandered through the desert.

            Whenever I begin reading this book, a childhood memory comes back to me.  I grew up in Los Angeles, CA, and when I was very young, my paternal grandparents moved from Detroit, MI to Circle City, AZ.  It was a tiny circle of homes in the middle of the desert, northwest of Phoenix, AZ.  Several times a year our family would make the drive to this tiny desert community.  Basically, it was a circle of homes established by the Workmen’s Circle, a Yiddish Socialist organization, for Jewish retirees.  Thus, the name Circle City.

            All the streets were named after famous Jewish socialists.  Several years ago, I went back to visit.  I could not remember which home was my grandparents’, but I found it fascinating that the entire village was Spanish speaking immigrants.  I wonder how many of these current residents understood or could even pronounce the names of the streets of their town.

            I remember how vast, mysterious, and beautiful the desert was.  Interstate 10 was not yet built, and it seemed like we drove for hours through empty sand dunes and cacti.  There was a small hotel in town with a swimming pool, but my parents would not let us swim in the middle of the day.  It was too hot.  My mom bought for me and my two brothers red sweaters, claiming that if we wandered off into the desert, they could see us from a distance.  (I was the oldest of three.  My brother Jeffrey z’l has been gone over twenty years, and my brother David is an attorney in Los Angeles.)  I remember my grandparents’ home, filled with Yiddish newspapers.  I have fond memories of those visits and the vast beauty of the desert.

            Having said that, in Biblical times people Israel hated the desert.  We had to wander across the Sinai desert for forty years.  In those days there were no hotels nor restaurants, only an occasional oasis.  To quote a song from Fiddler on the Roof,  “God fed us manna in the wilderness.”  The Torah later said, “[God] found them in a desert region, In an empty howling waste” (Deuteronomy 32:10).  Having spent time in the desert, I understand how our ancestors could view it as an empty howling waste.  Its vastness and emptiness can be quite scary.

            Nonetheless, our tradition associates the desert with the giving of the Torah.  The festival of Shavuot, in which we celebrate the revelation of the Torah, always falls in the week after we read this portion.  (This year it begins Tuesday night.)   Rabbinic tradition found meaning in that coincidence of the calendar.  The Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 1:7) teaches that the Torah was given in the desert because just as the wilderness is ownerless, so the Torah is ownerless.  It is available to anyone who wants to make it their own.

            The Midrash continues with a thought that a mystic could have written.  Just as the wilderness is ownerless, so we ought to make ourselves ownerless.  Mystics speak of letting go and emptying ourselves.  We need to let go of all desires and all distractions.  Only then will we be in a position to receive the Torah.  People who practice meditation speak of the same kind of letting go, not holding on to anything, and turning themselves into empty vessels.

            The desert is a deeply religious place.  Vast, empty, and beautiful, sometimes a howling wasteland and sometimes the perfect place to receive the Torah.  In Florida we do not have deserts.  But when I visit the Southwest United States, returning to the desert of my childhood can be a spiritual experience.