Bamidbar: Centered in the Wilderness

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bamidbar

With that- on to the book of Bamidbar, or “Numbers,” as it’s called in
English, so named because the opening scenes are a census of the
Israelite population. However, the Hebrew word “bamidbar” tells us
that this enumeration happened in the “wilderness” [midbar] of Sinai,
which conveys something different: the book of Bamidbar is a book of
transitions, from the bondage of Egypt to the settlement of Israel.
Transitions, almost by definition, create an “in-between” space while
a person or community gets where they are going, so to speak. (It’s
interesting that we have mostly spatial metaphors to describe
something emotional or spiritual.)

Thus, while the image of the “midbar,” or wilderness, is a physical
“in-between” space, denoting the unsettled (in both sense of the word)
place between Egypt and the Land of Promise, it’s also a metaphor,
symbolizing the emotional and spiritual transitions that the
Israelites must grow through. Along the way, they’ll try to organize
themselves, suffer great conflicts, lose hope, strive for faith,
complain constantly, and pull together against outside threats- it’s
quite a story of conflict and survival.

Perhaps the key point comes from the first verse of the book:

“God spoke to Moshe in the Sinai wilderness, in the Tent of Meeting,
on the first [day] of the second month in the second year of the
Exodus, saying . . . .” (Bamidbar/Numbers 1:1)

What I find striking about this introduction to the book of the
“wilderness” is the contrasting images of the “Sinai wilderness” and
the “Tent of Meeting,” which was at the center of the camp, where the
Divine Presence was felt and instruction conveyed. The Israelites were
in the wilderness, but they retained a sacred center, a place where
spiritual truths could be heard, a holy place which became a common
reference point for the diverse tribes.

It’s interesting to me that even in contemporary English, we say
“staying centered” to mean retaining a core sense of purpose,
identity, spirituality or vision precisely when things get chaotic or
confusing. That’s the challenge facing communities in transition, but
the Torah itself gives us a working model: organize yourself such that
there is an “Ohel Moed,” a Tent of Meeting, that gives an individual
or community a sense of sacred purpose, and like our ancestors did,
eventually we’ll make it together to a place of great promise.

Shabbat Shalom,


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