וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם
Va’yedabeir YHVH el Moshe b’Midbar Sinai b’ohel mo’eid b’ekhad la’khodesh ha’sheini bashanah ha’sheinit l’tzeitam mei’eretz Mitzrayim …
YHVH spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month of the second year since leaving Egypt … (Numbers 1:1).
So begins the fourth book of the Torah. Its English name is the book of Numbers, from the Greek Arithmoi, based on the elaborate census takings that make up several of the book’s chapters. But the Hebrew name is Bamidbar, which means “In the Wilderness.” It is a much more descriptive title, as the entire narrative takes place in a series of wilderness regions stretching from the Sinai Peninsula up through the present-day Negev, and into the mountains and plains of Edom and Moab on the Eastern bank of the Jordan River, covering the last 39 of the 40 years of the Israelites’ tumultuous wanderings.
Our sages engineered the cycle of Torah readings so that this first portion of the book, also titled Bamidbar, would always fall on the Shabbat just prior to the Festival of Shavuot. Shavuot is the festival that marks our receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Why did the sages intentionally connect this portion Bamidbar with the receiving of Torah?
Our sages are very clear that the Torah had to be given in the wilderness. The wilderness is land that belongs to no one. It is untracked; undomesticated. In order to hear the voice of God, we must find a way to clear our minds of the details and involvements of our daily lives. We also must, at least for a time, give up some measure of control of our lives and encounter life without preconditions. One way to do this is by heading out into the wilderness. I am an avid hiker, and I know well the restorative nature of spending time wandering in the wild. My thoughts gradually slow down and the din of my inner preoccupations diminishes until I am able to hear the world wordlessly speaking to me. I inevitably return to my very mapped-out life feeling clearer and renewed. Sh’ma, “listen.” It makes perfect sense that our ancestors would see the wilderness as the place to go to hear the voice of God.
But shifting our location in space is not the only way to create a “wilderness area.” If we can give up our ownership and domestication of time — that is, carve out holy time in which we pause from our work — then we can create a “wild” zone in time in which our busy minds might be stilled so that we might hear God’s voice. This is, of course, the idea of Shabbat and Holy Days. Even a relationship can at times become a blessed wandering in the wilderness if we are able even for a moment to set aside our expectations and opinions about the other person, and instead wander into the great mystery of their eyes and breath and the burning bush of their shimmering presence.
The Hebrew name for wilderness, מִדְבָּר midbar, draws us even deeper into this understanding. In Hebrew grammar, if you take a verb and place the prefix mi- before it, the resulting word means, “the place where that activity happens.” For example, the verbal root
ש–כ–נ SH-K-N means “dwell,” and מִִשְׁכָּן MiSHKaN means “dwelling place,” and in the Torah is the term for the sanctuary where God’s presence dwells. ק–ד–ש K-D-SH means “sanctify” or “holy,” and מִקְדָּשׁ MiKDaSH is the “place of holiness,” and the בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ Beit Hamikdash is the Hebrew term for the ancient holy sanctuary in Jerusalem. In a more mundane vein, ט–ב–ח TaBaKH means “cook”; מִטְבָּח MiTBaKH is a kitchen.
With this grammatical form in mind, midbar reveals a curious etymology: ד–ב–ר D-B-R means “speak.” מִדְבָּר MiDBaR therefore must mean “the place of speech,” or perhaps “the place of speaking.” Does that mean that our ancestors understood the wilderness as the place we go to hear God speak with us? I can’t prove it, but it seems right to me. The place or state of consciousness in which we might hear God’s voice is the place we do not control, the place we try to leave undisturbed by our ambitions, the place where we are humbled by creation’s grandeur, the place we do not try to domesticate with our comfortable categories. It can be a terrifying place because at least for a time, we leave our comforts and our shelter behind, and walk vulnerably into the unknown. This is where the Great Mystery speaks to us, and this is where the deeper meaning of life is wordlessly revealed. Our tradition teaches that even though the Children of Israel all heard that Voice together when they stood at Mount Sinai — the moment we celebrate and hope to recreate as we celebrate Shavuot — that Voice has never ceased. It was, is and will be always reverberating through our parched souls. Our challenge is to make the time and space in our lives to venture out into the midbar and listen.