Bamidbar – Torah in The Wilderness

How come such a big part of the Torah happens in the midbar/the desert? And how come when we receive the Torah, which we will […]

How come such a big part of the Torah happens in the midbar/the desert? And how come when we receive the Torah, which we will celebrate on Shavuot, we receive it in the midbar/desert, a desolate place that is seemingly empty?

One answer is that midbar is a place of quiet and solitude.  In contrast to the noise and bustle of the city, wilderness creates space to listen with heart and soul.  During this time of pandemic, many have learned to listen in a deeper way.  Yet it is hard to listen when life has been uprooted and turned upside down. Being stuck at home, learning or working by zoom, is not conducive to listening with heart. And as we think about this past week, listening with heart is almost impossible as bombs are falling in the Middle East and scenes of suffering fill our screens.

This morning’s portion reminds us that we need to seek moments of midbar, especially at times when it is difficult to listen. It is only when we create space to listen to ourselves and others, thoughtfully, that we are able to move forward with wisdom, insight and mindfulness.  The focus on midbar in this morning’s portion reminds us to create open hearts to receive Torah anew.  It is also a reason for Shabbat.   We cease.  We slow down.  We listen. We appreciate.  The power of Shabbat is that no matter what is happening in our lives, or in the world, we realize we can shift our focus.  We can reorient ourselves to listening with open hearts.

           In the nineteenth century, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wrote that God took us into the wilderness so that we could deal with our anxiety.  Anxiety in the aftermath of slavery was real.  We understand that anxiety in a different way this year, and at this moment.  It has been a year, and certainly a week, of heightened anxiety.  Listen to Rabbi Hirsch’s words: “The desert was the ideal venue for the revelation of God’s Torah because it was virgin soil, unpolluted as yet. By egoism and ambition, undefiled by the pursuit of vanity.  God chose the desert far from the cities, far from society and inhabited lands, far from an already corrupt society.”  We learn to acknowledge, and consciously leave, all of those sources of anxiety and return to ourselves, acknowledging them as we slow down and create space for our personal truths.

We need midbar right now.  We need to reflect on the awareness we acquire as we quiet ourselves and become aware of our thoughts and emotions.  I needed moments this week to stop checking the news feed, slow down my breathing, unclench my jaw and feel the pain and sadness of this tumultuous week of conflict. Listening and quiet do not always mean peaceful, but it does often mean honest and aware, able to lift up uncomfortable and even painful truths to which we must give voice. Quiet and reflection are key pieces of coping and growth.

And when we are honest and aware, our hearts open to learning.  In fact, when we listen, we also teach in unexpected ways and allow others to realize their own wisdom. A couple of weeks ago, David Brooks wrote a powerful column titled Wisdom Isn’t What You Think It Is. He shares the times when wisdom has shown up in his life.  Such times have been less about knowledge, which many people associate with wisdom, and more about people who allowed him to come to his own wisdom through full presence.  As I thought about his insight, I realized my best teachers have also been the ones who knew how to bring out my own internal wisdom.  Listen to his words: “Wise people don’t tell us what to do, they start by witnessing our story. They take the anecdotes, rationalizations and episodes we tell, and see us in a noble struggle.  They see us.”  The quiet and stillness of midbar reminds us that people grow only when they feel understood. When we allow space to listen, asking probing questions, clarifying what is meant, prodding to reflect in new ways, insight and wisdom occur.  It makes me think about times I have been too quick to give advice or share judgement.  The skill of listening and guiding is one most of us can develop more thoughtfully as parents, friends, teacher, co-workers, and leaders.

This also applies to our society, country and community.  In the months of pandemic and political discord, in a week of Middle East conflict when we have reduced people to categories – red/blue, hawk/dove, with me/against me – wilderness teaches us to listen to our own insight and to create space for others to come to their own personal wisdom.  Let’s listen to our own voice, seek out teachers and mentors who listen in ways which help us find our authentic truth and be the ones who listen to others in ways that help them grow.  That is midbar.

Torah was given in midbar because it is a place of quiet and reflection, but it is more than that.  In fact, that explanation might overly romanticize wilderness. The truth is that wilderness can be a harsh and difficult place. While my moments in midbar inspired me, I am keenly aware that they were uncomfortable.  The beating sun, sand everywhere, the heat of the day and the cold nights were not easy.  I imagine for the Israelites, the lack of water and food, sand, insects and discomfort defined their days.  Some commentators say these conditions toughened up the Israelites and taught them they can overcome anything, an important lesson this past year.

And it also taught the Israelites to depend on one another.  To survive difficult conditions requires people who help one another.  That is how we got through these many months of pandemic and unrest and how we will get through the unrest in the Middle East.  We turn to one another.  We are there for each other.  Stories of people coming together and helping one another sustain us. One interpretation of midbar is that everyone had a specific place where they camped and the relationships between the different units is what allowed for success. It is proximity, connection and cooperation that transforms difficult circumstances into purpose and success.

Over the course of this coming year, you will hear about the organization United Hatzalah, an organization that fosters overcoming suffering through cooperation and connections.  I recently met the founder of United Hatzalah, Eli Beer, and he shared how the organization began.  He was a teenager who volunteered to help on an ambulance.  One day they were called to the home of a boy who was choking, but with traffic and distance, they were too late.  A doctor, who lived a couple of doors down, came by and said all they could do at that point was to cover the boy’s body with a sheet.  To Eli, it made no sense.  So many people with skills to help who were nearby, but they were not notified.  So he, illegally, brought in some police scanners and gathered some people with medical skills who would respond as he heard the call and get there to help until the ambulance arrived.

The idea took off.  Right now, United Hatzalah has 6,000 volunteers around Israel who are available any time to race to a medical emergency and provide medical attention until an ambulance, which often takes over twenty minutes to navigate traffic, arrives.  It is a group of doctors, nurses, medics and EMTs who each have a GPS and who, with the help of ambucycles, respond immediately if they are the closest volunteer to an emergency.  Those precious minutes between when the United Hatzalah volunteer arrives and the ambulance arrives is the difference between life and death.  A United Hatzalah volunteer arrives in less than three minutes across the country, and ninety seconds in metropolitan areas.

The volunteers are Jews and Muslims, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, religious Jews and secular Jews, who all realize that we need one another in order to survive.  So what has happened this past week during this terrible conflict?  Go on the web site.  Read about Asher Tzvi Shwed, who was a kilometer away from a man who collapsed on a soccer field.  As the air raid siren blared and rockets sailed overhead, most intercepted by Iron Dome, Shwed and others there saved the man’s life. Afterwards he said: “I did it because a person’s life was on the line and I was hoping to help him live in spite of the dangers all around us.”  There is another story posted yesterday about a Muslim doctor, Mohammed Awad who was called to the scene of a Jewish man being attacked by a mob in the town of Tamra.  Awad put himself in the midst of the mob, shielding the man and yelling at the mob as he began to treat the man’s injuries. He reflected: “We saved this man’s life and rescued him from the heart of the village and the protests. We did it in order to save his life even knowing that we would be injured and beaten ourselves.” In a week where we read about people turning against one another, let us remember that we need each other in order to survive.

Midbar reminds us that during difficult situations, we depend on one another. We find ways to band together for the greater good.  In a world where conflict is so real, and amidst realities of the need to defend oneself, let us also remember that, ultimately, it is the connections we have with one another and the help we extend to one another that allow us to survive and thrive.

Midbar allows us to find who we are.  We listen to ourselves and help others listen to themselves. We work together, realizing that with open hearts we can help one another survive and thrive.  May people’s hearts turn toward one another.  May the lessons of wilderness sustain and inspire.