Enter the Wilderness

Rabbi Linda Holtzman

Rabbi Linda Holtzman

Parshat Bamidbar

Bamidbar is a fascinating book. Starting with the word bamidbar, in the wilderness, we learn just how wild the wilderness can be. The English name of the book, Numbers, describes the counting of the people that takes place as we enter the text, but that doesn’t do the book justice.

Imagine a book that tells tales of rebellion and fiery Divine punishment, of leprosy and struggle, of spies and uncertainty, of battles and killing, of women’s rights and of women’s punishment by magical potion if they are accused of adultery, and, of course, a talking donkey who is willing to go out of his way to save a man’s life.

Entering the wilderness opens the people to a wide array of magic and violence and terror; and there are always numbers, the counting of the people more than once. I have always loved Bamidbar for these startling and provocative tales and have loved how it takes me into a fantastical realm that fires my imagination.

Yet Bamidbar is not just a grand fantasy. As we read this extraordinary book, we are inspired to allow ourselves to move into whatever wilderness we need to inhabit. Entering a wilderness means that we are willing to take a risk, to relinquish the safety of a clearly boundaried life. Entering a wilderness is opening ourselves to whatever may happen and finding ways to live fully in the surprises that are in store for us.

Going to the midbar means looking below the surface of our lives: our personal lives and the life of our community. Being in the midbar is being honest with ourselves; nothing is there to limit our vision.

Is there something we have been wanting to do that we keep putting off because of worry or fear? Are we satisfied with our work or our relationships, and are we afraid to face the possibility that we are not getting all that we could out of either? If we let ourselves fully enter the midbar, there is nothing that stops us from seeing the truth, from acting with courage.
This is true in our community as well. Can we see the ways that the Jewish community, either here or in Israel, is not living up to all that it could be? If we let ourselves see the truth, then it is our responsibility to act, to stand up and “speak truth to power,” letting our governments and our leadership hear what we are seeing.

On May 16, there was an important election in Philadelphia. There were many candidates for mayor and for council representatives. Even though this was just a primary election, the results will matter. It is up to us to do what Bamidbar teaches us.

Look beneath the surface. Don’t be swayed by the glitzy advertisements. Don’t let our hopelessness about this city and its high levels of violence and its challenging public school system stop us from believing that we can make a difference. Listen to all that the candidates were saying beneath the slogans. Focus on what has not been working and see who has a plan that has vision and creativity. If we are open to facing the truth about this city, our votes can change the future.

And if we pay attention to what the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Israel are saying, we can stand with them to demand change. What does it take for us, the American Jewish community, to look at what is happening beneath the surface and to face it honestly? It’s time for us to take the risks to see the truth and to stand in solidarity with our Israeli siblings who are determined to live in a country they can be proud of.

It does take counting and studying the numbers, both here and in Israel, knowing the hard facts and taking them in. And then, it takes our willingness to enter the wilderness that can open us to new possibilities and to new opportunities for growth, in our personal lives and in our communities.

May we be deeply inspired as we dive into the wilderness of Bamidbar.

Rabbi Linda Holtzman is the director of student life at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the rabbi of the Tikkun Olam Chavurah. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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