Have you ever noticed how much of the Torah takes place in the wilderness? Think about it. From the middle of the Book of Exodus, when the Israelites are redeemed from Egypt, the drama of Torah unfolds in the wilderness.
The narratives of the Israelite community's birth and growth, their complaints and conflicts and faithlessness, are all set in the context of their journey through the desert. And the teaching of biblical law, the visioning and structuring of Israelite life, are all given as the Israelites move through their years in the desert.
The wilderness. The desert. A place of emptiness, uncertainty and unpredictability — not to mention directionlessness and fear. A strange place to set a holy book, perhaps. But then again, how much of life does unfold in the wilderness?
This Shabbat, we begin a new segment of the Torah's wilderness narrative, with the beginning of the book titled Bemidbar, which literally translates, "In the wilderness." (Though the English title of the book, Numbers, correctly describes the census-taking that begins the book, the Hebrew title captures its essence far better.)
It is striking that we begin the reading of this book just before Shavuot, this year, immediately preceding the holiday, which begins at sunset Saturday night. In fact, the rabbis consciously arranged the liturgical calendar so that the reading of this parashah always precedes the celebration of Shavuot, the festival of receiving the Torah. Why the connection?
I found no less than five explanations for the rabbis' choice to place this Torah reading just prior to the Festival of Revelation. One explanation for the timing was to be sure that Shavuot would not fall too soon after Parashat Behukkotai, the previous parashah which, among other things, contains promises of curses that God will send in consequence for Israelite unfaithfulness in the future.
Another explanation suggests that the essence of the wilderness is its emptiness, and that a person or a people who wish to receive God's revelation must empty themselves of routine concerns in order to be truly prepared to receive the word of God. Hence the connection between Bemidbar and Shavuot.
A third explanation notes the census that begins this parashah, implying that the Torah wants to take account of the specialness of each member of the Jewish community, the holy people about to receive the Torah. Yet another commentator says that the Torah enters the life of the people Bemidbar, in the desert, precisely to teach that through the life of Torah one can transform the wilderness — whether the wild, frightening external landscape, or the inner terrain of aridity, emptiness and fear — into a garden of Eden, a land of lush richness and beauty.
Finally, one commentary regards the image of the desert as a perfect prelude to the acceptance of Torah. In order to truly receive revelation from God, one must make oneself like the desert — flat, blank, humble, motionless and without direction, such that words from God may enter. (All explanations from Itturei Torah.)
No coincidence, obviously, the way this parashah draws us into the dynamics of wilderness life just as we prepare to rejoice in the Torah that our people was given. I want to suggest one more reason why we must read Parashat Bemidbar just prior to the festival of Shavuot. It is because the image of the wilderness is so much like life.
Life so often unfolds with the dry, uncertain quality of the wilderness. We don't know where we're going, we ache for clear landmarks, or guideposts along the way, we long for an oasis and instead we find more danger, more storms, more unpredictable events, more fear.
But if life is like the desert, life also contains the possibility — no, the reality — of Torah, of support and guidance from God, no matter where we find ourselves in our journey.
In the midst of the desert, we as a people receive Torah: law, justice, ethics, structure, certainty, truth. As individuals, if we make ourselves ready to notice Mount Sinai when it suddenly rises in the midst of the flatness of the desert of our lives, then we too can receive messages of God's presence and love and guidance, no matter how threatening the external terrain, no matter how uncertain the path on which we find ourselves.
This Shabbat, may we make good use of Parashat Bemidbar's wisdom, entering deeply into its imagery, so that we can be ready to truly celebrate the presence of Torah in our lives. Amen.