To peruse any of the great many Jewish prayerbooks out there is to open a window onto our millennia-old tradition of pouring our hearts out before God. Many of our prayers are expressions of gratitude, whether for grand miracles or everyday moments. Others are petitionary; still others are calls of praise. And some prayers express delight, pure and simple, at the privilege we share of being alive for a brief time in this fragile, wondrous world.
On the subject of petitionary prayer: It is no secret that part of the means of Jewish survival has always been to engage life as it is while also praying and working for what it can be. We never have stopped striving, and we never have stopped praying — for shelter, for wisdom, for peace.
So at first glance it seems ironic that the setting for Bamidbar, this week’s Torah portion, is a place as far from the peace and serenity we long for as it could possibly be. In fact, it is a profoundly unsheltered, disconcerting place. It is embedded in the very first verse; Bamidbar — in the wilderness.
There are pages upon pages of rabbinic commentary and parables on that verse alone, as to why it links to so much of the content that follows, and why so much of the Israelites’ journey toward peoplehood took place “bamidbar,” in that wilderness, or desert.
After all, the midbar was a place whose endlessness and paucity of resources terrified this community, driving them into rebellion against Moses’ leadership time and again. Their anger and resistance caused them to go so far as to lament the fact that they were living through this experience in the first place, crying out, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11).
The long view is called the long view for a reason.
What’s so interesting is that later on in the prophetic writings, we come to understand the Israelites’ time in the desert wilderness in a new light, the terrifying edges softened by nostalgia.
Through the voices of our prophets, God remembers the wilderness years with tenderness, sometimes likening it to early courtship, before everything got so complicated, as everything always does.
Later still, as the rabbis pored over the significance of the desert, they came to see it as a constructive time. A period during which the Israelites were tested by hardships led them to their new home (the long way) and helped them grow strong in the process.
Not everyone takes this point of view on trials and tribulations, and for good reason. Sometimes they rob us of more than they give, and no one should presume to deny or erase the anger and frustration of another person as he or she is struggling.
What we can see — as we trace these changing images and understandings of midbar — is that the long view is called the long view for a reason.
When the Israelites were in the middle of their wanderings — vulnerable, uncertain, their internal landscape mirroring the wilderness around them in the most unsettling ways — there was no possibility of understanding that, even as they were suffering, they were growing into the wiser, more multi-dimensional people they were destined to be.
It was only over time, with a healthy dose of retrospect and, perhaps, the all too human tendency to romanticize the past, that some of that fear and darkness left the wilderness.
It happens still. One of my teachers, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, comments movingly on the experience of going through midbar:
“I have seen another kind of desert, the personal wilderness that all of us enter from time to time. You are engulfed in sickness or personal trauma: a family death, a midlife crisis, a sense that your personal compass has stopped pointing you anywhere. You can look right through the familiar contours of your humanly constructed world and watch instead an endless array of nothingness stretch out before you. This is not a welcome sight. No one visits this desert purposely. It visits us, often when we least expect it. But in the end, it too gives us that special clarity without which life’s real promise eludes us.”
There is darkness in these passages, to be sure. But perhaps, in time, there is also light, and a certain peace, for which we have prayed so long.