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23.05.2017 13:08    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  bamidbar  

The Desert as a Metaphor

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 Sinaiin the Tent of Meeting, saying: (Num. 1:1)

Why does the Torah mention these two places, when it appears superfluous to mention either? Ever since the Tabernacle was built the Lord spoke with Moses from the Tent of Meeting, and that the people were in the wilderness of Sinai is self-evident, for they had not yet entered the Promised Land.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments on this verse:[1]

The census was taken in the wilderness.  From this we learn that this census was not for economic or political purposes; for these have no bearing in the wilderness.  Rather, the addition of the words, “Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting,” indicates that this census was dedicated to the Torah; the Torah, given at Mount Sinai, with the Tent of Meeting being the place for accepting responsibility to follow its commandments.

Thus we see that these two expressions indicate not only where the Lord spoke with Moses, but also the objective of the census:  “dedicated to the Torah.”  The combination of the wilderness, representing the public sphere and the region that does not belong to anyone in particular on the one hand, and the Tent of Meeting, the Holy of Holies, restricted to the Lord’s communing with Moses for him to receive the Teaching and commandments on the other hand, is indicative of a unique combination.

A similar idea is expressed by the midrash (Numbers Rabbah [Vilna ed.], ch. 1):

The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai—rather, whoever does not make himself like the wildernesshefker [open to all], cannot attain wisdom and Torah; therefore it says, “in the wilderness of Sinai.”

The wilderness represents the absence of materialism, natural purity and humility.  It gives human beings the ability to listen to their inner voice, to their true feelings, to honesty at its best, but also gives them the ability to be open and receptive to what filters into the soul of the person contemplating the infinite expanses of the wilderness.

These characteristics form the foundation for perfect acceptance of the Torah.  Torah is not acquired through pride and self-importance, that materialism gives man.[2] Those who wish to receive the Torah and wisdom must labor and train themselves to acquire suitable characteristics. Rendering mutual assistance, being satisfied with little, and welcoming guests are among the cornerstones of life for dwellers in the wilderness, forged in the difficult living conditions there. Therefore, the wilderness was a suitable place for the Israelites to become a people who accept the Lord’s Teaching, as presented in this week’s reading in the Tent of Meeting.

The census of the Israelites in the wilderness, the encampment of the tribes under their standards and with their tribal chieftains, the placement of the Tabernacle in the midst of the encampment, and all the other details given in this week’s reading attest to a model of order that even caused Balaam to be moved with admiration (Num. 24:5):  “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!”

The tension between the desert as a place of abandonment and the meticulous order demanded of the people is what forged the basic characteristics of the Israelites as a people.  Years of wandering in the wilderness provided the formative period in the history of the Jewish people, and despite all the people’s shortcomings in coping with the Lord’s commands during this period, their wandering in the desert is remembered favorably, as expressed by the prophet Jeremiah:  “Thus said the Lord:  I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride—how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.”

The wilderness also figures as a means of educating in this week’s haftarah, from Hosea, chapter 2.[3] It deals with the question of restoring spousal relations that have gone bad:  can such relations be restored once they have reached the stage of being officially dissolved by divorce?  The suggestion given by the haftarah is to go out to the wilderness (Hosea 2:16):  “Assuredly, I will speak coaxingly to her and lead her through the wilderness and speak to her tenderly.”  The Lord relates to Israel as to a woman whom He is about to entice and lead again through the wilderness, and (verse 17):  “There she shall respond as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt.”

Since the theme of this prophecy concerns competition, the wilderness serves as a solution, since there is no competition there.  By sustaining Israel in the wilderness, the bond between Israel and the Lord will be renewed.  The intimacy experienced in the wilderness, with no competition or factors that are likely to break the union between the two spouses, will rehabilitate the relationship.  The wilderness, as said in Jeremiah 2:2, is also where the “couple” began their relationship, and therefore it will remind them of their love of yore, when it was powerful and imbued with mutual trust, and will thus bring them to renew their vows, so that after the divorce will come renewed unification (loc. cit., 21-22):

And I will espouse you forever:

I will espouse you with righteousness and justice,

And with goodness and mercy,

And I will espouse you with faithfulness;

Then you shall be devoted to the Lord.

So we see that the wilderness, arid and threatening, with its harsh climatic conditions and isolation, provides the grounds for proper instillation of the covenant between the Israelites and the Lord, both in the Israelites’ early days and in their latter days, with renewal of the covenant after the rupture created by the people’s unsuitable comportment.  Hence the great importance of noting the precise place where the Lord spoke to Moses:  “in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting.”

Translated by Rachel Rowen


 
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