08/30/11

30. Bamidbar

THE BOOK OF NUMBERS

 

Bamidbar

 

THE WILD SIDE

This week we are crossing over into the fourth book of Moses, leaving
Leviticus behind and venturing upon the Wilderness which is Sinai. The
fourth book is known in English as ‘Numbers’ – due to the population
census that happens in the first few chapters, but this book is less
about bureaucracy and more about existence on the wild side of life.
The book’s Hebrew name is Ba’Midbar – literally translated as ‘in the
wilderness’ that geographical AND mythic landscape sometimes
translated as ‘desert’ or ‘wasteland’.  The Hebrew meaning of the word
‘midbar’, somewhat lost in translation conceals dunes and expanses of
deeper meanings, turning a physical location into a metaphysical
truth.

A medieval Jewish collection of legends called Simon’s Satchel writes:
‘As the wilderness is endless – so are the teachings of Torah
endless.’ Thus, as many others have suggested, the very notion of
engaging with a sacred text and the notion of seeking divine
revelation is deeply linked to the very location of this historic
revelation – the wilderness of Sinai. Why does one have to venture out
to the wild in order to encounter the mystery? Perhaps it is because
the emptiness of the expanses opens up a possible portal for higher,
or deeper, listening. The Torah was not revealed in the Promised Land,
but rather, poignantly, in the middle of nowhere.  Where in your life
does this principle hold true? (And we don’t just mean turning a
highway to walk quietly, or turning off a cell phone to be fully
present, but those are decent examples)

The word MIDBAR originates from DBR, a primitive Semitic root meaning
‘to speak;’ but also and in a more destructive sense – ‘to subdue’ or
‘disperse’. This is the same root of the word ‘Commandment’-as in the
‘ten commandments’ and also the most popular word in the Torah – ‘He
spoke’ as in ‘God spoke to Moses’. In its warfare context the word is
used to describe the annihilation of enemies, and in Modern Hebrew it
is the word used to describe the fight against disease or the
fumigation of bugs.  Somehow the power of the word is such that it is
the very root of constructing reality, and somehow, as our
dictionary suggest, the word midbar is intimately linked with the
word dabar—space becomes speech.

The fourth book of Moses describes the bulk of the wandering in Sinai,
over thirty years of survival in a great wilderness, many deaths, and
many miraculous moments. As we cross the threshold into this reality,
on the eve of Shavuot – the holiday commemorating the revelation at
Sinai, Lauviticus would like to invite us all to pause and take a deep
breath of desert air. What awaits us on the wild side? Where, in our
urban modern lives, is the space that beckons for sacred listening and
inspirational speech? Let’s take a walk on this wild side, if only
safely through the weekly telling of the wanderings of our ancestors.
We begin the journey and end with a quote from a contemporary seeker
of revelation:

“I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and
confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately
and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the
elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us. ” (From
‘Desert Solitaire’ by Edward Abbey)