black and white engraving -- a woman kneels before Moses begging
The Daughters of Zelophehad request the inheritance that is their due, seen in this illustration from "Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us" by Charles Foster, 1897

Into the wilderness: when plans go awry

Bamidbar
Numbers 1:1-4:20
Hosea 2:1-2:22

Mom: We are so proud that you’re the first young adult from Chelm to become a trip leader for Camp Ganowata!

Dad: So happy you chose the “Get Out of the House” adventure program.

Mom: Did you bring your list all the items that you need for camping?

Trip leader: Yes.

Mom and Dad: Lightweight hat, waterproof jacket, wool socks, boots, sunglasses, sandals, and swimsuit?

TL: Yes.

Mom: Camping stove with fuel, cookware, utensils, reusable water bottle, towel and soap?

TL: Yes. All set.

Dad: The Rabbi of Chelm is here to see before your trip.

TL: What?

Rabbi: Hello, I heard that you’re going camping into the wilderness so I decided to bring you a special gift. It’s a book, a survival guide, well kind of a survival guide for camping in the wilderness, it is Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah.”

TL: You’re giving me a book from the Torah to go camping?

Rabbi: Yes, you are going into the wilderness and this book is called Bamidbar, Into the Wilderness. It has lots of advice. You’re going to be leading a group of campers hiking and making camp in the wilderness, and this book is all about counting the number of campers you have, leadership skills and preparing for when things go wrong.

TL: What will go wrong? I’ve prepared everything. I have maps, GPS, the right supplies.

Rabbi: Yes, but you are leading people. People pack things you can’t see. Maps and plans are fixed in place, but what happens is fluid. Sometimes leaders need to listen to their followers. Sometimes good people break rules. Some rules don’t work in the wilderness and need to be changed.

TL: That’s in Bamidbar?

Rabbi: Yes. About half of the Book of Numbers/Bamidbar is about rules and instructions. The other half is a record of what our ancestors experienced from the beginning of the second year of the Exodus until 40 years later, at the end of the journey.

When I was a young person like you I had a teacher in Jerusalem, well, not as young, anyway, his name is Arnie Eisen. Now he is the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He wrote this about Bamidbar:

“Their journey will not be without incident, of course. It will rarely be said again in the Book of Numbers, chapter 1, verse 54, ‘The Israelites did accordingly; just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so they did.’ But there will be progress. At the end of the book they will be well advanced toward the goal, ready to cross the narrow river and take hold of divine promise. Politics for us, as for them, is a matter of fits and starts, highs and lows, obedience and stubbornness.

“The Israelites portrayed in Numbers are not irredeemable, a fact that gives us hope, though they are — again like us — often frightened and perhaps even traumatized: they by slavery, we by Holocaust. Desire often gets the better of them as it does of us. Farce sometimes is succeeded by tragedy. And yet along the way there are occasions of true nobility, signs of genuine holiness, and at the end there are palpable signs of redemption. The children of the people Israel are getting somewhere. Israel will heed ‘the commandments and regulations that the Lord enjoined upon [them] through Moses’ (Numbers 36:13), at least some of the time. Normalcy and covenant will coexist and even strengthen one another, as the Torah had imagined.”

TL: What’s this little piece of paper?

Rabbi: A bookmark with a quote from John Muir: “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world — the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.”

Maybe that is why we and they go into the wilderness. Half of the book is about things on the schedule, fixed on the itinerary, like mitzvot. The other is the story of what happens. Leadership is how you negotiate both, looking ahead and looking around. The wounds that could not be healed are left behind. By the way, do you have assistant leaders?

TL: Yes, the Zlofchad sisters. They know how to stand up for themselves.

Rabbi: May I ask, how long is this journey that you’re taking?

TL: The trek is 30 days. Why?

Rabbi: Take extra, it may take longer than you think to get to where you want to be going. Might take 40.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan is chief program officer at HaMaqom|The Place, formerly Lehrhaus Judaica. He can be reached at peretz@hmqm.org.