The parasha begins with God speaking to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai – b’midbar Sinai. We call this parasha b’midbar but it would be more accurate to call it b’midbar Sinai since the grammatical form of the word b’midbar means ‘wilderness of…’
In this portion devoted to counting of the tribes, the place where it happens seems to be important. Some may think of ‘midbar’ as a desert but it would be more true to think of it as a wilderness where there is vegetation but where it is sparse and uncultivated. The prophet Jeremiah contrasts ‘midbar’ with ‘carmel’ when he speaks about the coming destruction that he foretells for the Israelites (Jeremiah 4:26):
“I looked and the Carmel was a Midbar and all its cities were broken down at the presence of God and by his fierce anger”
Here the luxuriant slopes of the Carmel are contrasted with the sparse thorny midbar indicating how one is the opposite of the other. This contrast leads us to consider how the Israelites begin their existence in the midbar moving towards the Promised Land which they then make into a land flowing with milk and honey. Similarly the Israelites begin their journey well organized and regimented in these first chapters of Numbers but soon all falls into chaos and rebellion as they move on.
Perhaps a sense of hope comes from the Prophet Hosea who indicates that the midbar can be a potential for growth and can be transformed (Hosea 2:16):
“Therefore behold I will allure her and bring her into the midbar and speak to her heart. And I will give her vineyards from there and the valley of Achor as a gate of hope and she shall sing there as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came out of Egypt.”
Hosea reminds us that the midbar can be transformed into a carmel; that the Israelites will be able to overcome their difficulties and arrive at their promised destination. The place where revelation is given therefore is merely a potential for eventual redemption. It acts as the prompt to move us on to our final destination.
When we talk of this parasha, we can wonder what is this b’midbar – this wilderness of? What potential is there for us? Where is our need to transform what is to what should be? With Shavuot round the corner, the days are counting down to revelation and then the wilderness experience will be upon us.
Rabbi Dr Michael Shire
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.