by Rabbi Howard Cooper, Director of Spiritual Development, Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, UK
“On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from Egypt, God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying : Take a census of the whole Israelite community, listing the names, person by person…” (Numbers 1:1)
And so it begins: the unsettled, restless wandering, the fraught expectations of not-yet-achieved security, months that drag into years, years that merge into decades, hopes occluded, bitterness grinding down the soul, as the weary journey towards the elusive, envisioned dream – a promised land! – remains always just beyond the horizon, held in God’s time as our ageing bodies shrivel in the noonday sun and our children cry out in the night.
The ennobling drama of miraculous escape is over. Revelation has come and gone. And the real journey begins. The Cloud and Fire are daily reminders, yet time dulls the wonder. The food that arrives each morning is a mystery to savour, yet familiarity jades the palate. The promise is milk and honey flowing in our mouths, yet now – teeth-gritted, tongue-tied, all praise gone – we choke in dust, uncertain of the way ahead. Now is midbar. Now is wilderness. And all is always now.
How long does wilderness last? We don’t know, can’t know, never know. Best to start with what we do know, or think we know – numbers. The text announces this insistently, its background beat preparing for battles ahead: ‘first day…second month…second year…’. Drifting in time, we secure ourselves with chronology, with the rhythms of sun and moon, anchoring ourselves against the fears of a future that remains always out of our control. And we secure ourselves by counting – and counting on – “those twenty years old and up…all those in Israel who are able to bear arms” (1:3).
The census taken at the beginning of the long march is mirrored a generation later with another census, a summoning up of forces before the people cross the Jordan (Numbers 26). The book of B’midbar is filled with lists and genealogies: lists of the tribes, their leaders, their offerings, their marching orders, their numbers – facts and figures to hold on to as the confusion of the journey grows, the years pass, the generation born in slavery and freed with such high hopes slowly age and die, without reaching their goal. And always they are preparing for battle, for battles ahead, for battles of mind and body scarred – and scared – by battles already fought. (Our greatest fear: the future will always mirror the past).
Everyone was counted, everyone had their place, their tribe, their role, everyone was bound up in the ordered fabric of the group moving through the wilderness to that Promised Land. All the numbers gave a kind of security, an illusion of being held inside the ‘Children of Israel’: it’s supposed to be safe, to be part of a people, part of a community, with a destiny and a future.
But when it came down to it you had to wake up each morning and face the desert, the unknown wilderness ahead and around and here and now. Beneath the surface order, a generation is lost and confused and very frightened. ‘Lead us back’ they demand: the past was safer. ‘Lead us forward’ they cry, ‘away from here, away from here’
The book of Numbers is unsparing in its portrait of a people, disillusioned, rebellious, frightened – at war with those they encounter around them, and within themselves. Amidst the order and certainty represented by the numbers and the lists, amidst the rational, logical, calm, soothing details, we hear the opposite: chaos, anger, fear – for nothing is in place, nothing is understood, nothing is certain.
B’midmar exposes our fantasies of control, our deep wishes that what we can count and quantify and measure can give us stability and security. We have a house number, bank account number, phone number, voter registration number, social security number – we are enmeshed in the complex fabric of societies that can only continue to function to the extent that they regulate (and we allow) numbers to structure our existence.
We fear that for the state we are a number before we are a person. It was not Auschwitz that initiated this process, it merely showed us the dehumanising consequences of modernity’s preoccupation with the imposing of systems on the innate chaos of existence. Yet the Torah intuits that we live and dream in another kind of reality, an unfixed, unstable, human reality, filled with the fragility and uncertainty of desert wandering. The dramas of family life, the secret passions of the heart, the pains and joys of bodily and mental life, inner worlds that can never be regulated – all defy attempts to reduce the mystery of our being to its genetic makeup, its chemical components, its biological data.
Under the ordered surface of the book of Numbers there is a people, lost, confused, wandering. To be in the wilderness means to feel the confusion, the disappointment, the anxiety, of a journey where meaning is hidden, where we do not even know if there is a meaning. To be in the wilderness means facing the bleakness and the harshness of our destinies. How terrifying for the soul not to know where the day’s journey will end, let alone the journey of a lifetime.
And yet. The Holy One spoke in the heart of the wilderness, in territory that belonged to nobody, in territory that belonged to everybody. It is in the wilderness that revelation comes. It is in the wilderness that we see that wandering has a direction, a purpose. And it is bigger than we are.
Revelation comes. A flash of lightening. A moment of insight. A voice within. Perhaps only a whisper, a wisp of understanding, a sigh. And then: the silence. Again. And the wilderness. Again. And we thank God for it. The wilderness again: 40 years and today and forever. We are ‘B’midbar’: in the wilderness.