By Rabbi Lawrence Troster
This week we begin the Book of Numbers, Bamidbar, usually translated as “in the wilderness.” But what is the meaning of the word midbar in the Tanakh?
It does not usually mean “desert,” as is often thought, because it needs to have enough rainfall for the pasturage of flocks and, according to some scholars, it actually derives from a root word meaning “to lead sheep to pasture.” In the Tanakh it is used 267 times to refer to an actual physical location, such as midbar Sinai, midbar Para or midbar Shur. This land is a kind of border between settled cultivated land and true wilderness.
But midbar can also mean real desert, an arid zone beyond pastureland or cultivated land, a place that is completely wild. It is a place of desolation and parched earth, with little water to sustain life.
It is not fit for human habitation except for a few nomads. It is often a place of cruelty and violence, animal against animal and humans against each other. It is dangerous to enter and can only be crossed by a few paths. Because of its isolation, it becomes a refuge to outlaws and fugitives. It is also the place where demons dwell and where death is found. This attitude is that of the farmer, the city dweller and the shepherd who fear and loathe the hot desert sands and rocks.
In the story of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, midbar is pictured as a place of punishment and a time of transformation of the people from a group of slaves to an organized settled society, from “societal and spiritual chaos to an integrated social and spiritual order” (S. Talmon). It is, for the people of Israel, the human counterpart to the creation story: a process from chaos to cosmos.
But the desert journey is sometimes seen as a time of purity, simplicity and the beginning of the “marriage” between God and Israel:
“Thus said the Lord: I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth,
Your love as a bride — how you followed Me in the wilderness (ba-midbar), in a land not sown.
Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruit of His harvest” (Jeremiah 2:2-3).
In modern environmental literature, wilderness are places without human presence or intervention, spaces of renewal and the return to our natural roots.
“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
“The Peace of Wild Things,” from Collected Poems,
1957-1982, p. 69
But can wilderness really be a Jewish spiritual experience?
Jewish environmentalist Jeremy Benstein pointed out that the rabbis asked: Why was the Torah given in the wilderness? Their answer was that to be able to receive Torah and wisdom we must open ourselves like we are in the wilderness, masterless and set apart from the world. Benstein interpreted this to mean that we must learn from real wilderness to be able to hear the revelation of God.
“God can speak (medabber) better in the desert (midbar). Or maybe we can just hear better. Elijah the prophet too heard the kol demamah dakah, “the still small voice” (more literally, “the sound of a thin silence”), on a mountaintop in the desert, only after leaving civilization and its trials (see 1 Kings 19)” (Benstein, The Way Into Judaism and the Environment, p. 140-3).
Given that most of the divine human encounters in the Tanakh occur in the natural world, it would seem that our direct experiences of wilderness are central to our spiritual foundations.
And surveys have found that 80 percent of people have had their most profound spiritual experiences in the natural world. Without these experiences, which can be as grand as the Grand Canyon or as small as watching a butterfly, our spiritual life is impoverished, and we are cut off from the primal sources of our spirituality.
Americans spend 90 percent of their waking life indoors, and children spend little time playing outside. Virtual worlds encountered through screens are no substitute for the real world of earth, plants, animals, sky and stars.
The wilderness can be dangerous and terrifying but it can also be a place that evokes our love of creation and our humility before our creator. So now that spring is finally with us, spend more time outdoors and listen to the world beyond human craft and machine. God is waiting to be heard.
Rabbi Lawrence Troster is the rabbi at Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.