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Bamidbar(Numbers 1:1-4:20)

The Desert

This week we begin a new book, the book of "Numbers," known in Hebrew as Bamidbar meaning "In the Desert." The English name for the book is a translation of the word hapikudim1 meaning "the counting" or "the census," which is delineated in the second verse of the book.

At first glance it seems that the "counting" is intrinsic to the story,2 for it describes an action and not merely a locale, while the name Bamidbar seems incidental, and is chosen due to its appearance in the first verse. It is not strange that the name of the entire book should emanate from the first verse; this phenomenon is found in the other four books.

The essence of the story is captured in this one word: Bamidbar.

Yet in this instance perhaps the essence of the story is captured in this one word. The book is about the long sojourn in the desert, and delineates the circuitous route taken by the Jews on their way to the Holy Land.

However, this sojourn was not part of the original plan, and only resulted from the sin of the spies. At that point it was decreed that this generation would remain languishing in the desert, and ultimately perish among the vast dunes of sand.

And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, "How long shall I bear this evil congregation, which murmur against me? I have heard the murmurings of the People of Israel, which they murmur against me. Say to them, As truly as I live, said the Lord, as you have spoken in my ears, so will I do to you. Your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness; and all who were counted of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, who have murmured against me, shall by no means come into the land I have sworn to settle you therein, save Caleb the son of Yephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun. But your little ones, which you said would be prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which you have despised. But as for you, your carcasses, they shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years, and bear your backslidings, until your carcasses are wasted in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied the land, forty days, each day for a year, shall you bear your iniquities, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure." (Numbers 14:26-34)

Perhaps we would be led to believe that had this defiant sin not taken place, the desert would not be a part of our collective consciousness. However, from the very beginning of the process of the Exodus, Moses is told that the desert, the wilderness, is the destination for the religious experience:

And they shall listen to your voice; and you shall come, you and the elders of Israel, to the king of Egypt, and you shall say to him, "The Lord God of the Hebrews has met with us; and now let us go, we beseech you, three days' journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God." (Exodus 3:18)

 

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RELIGIOUS QUEST

That the desert is the objective of the religious quest is reiterated numerous times in the "negotiations" with Pharaoh.3 When the Jews finally arrive at Mount Sinai in order to receive the Torah, the text stresses the arrival at the desert:

In the third month, when the people of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai. For they had departed from Rephidim, and had come to the desert of Sinai, and had camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount. (Exodus 19:1-2)

The desert motif serves as the backdrop for the prototypical religious experience – Sinai. But it is also a crucial element of the antecedent to Sinai, Moses's epiphany at the Burning Bush:

And Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock far away into the desert, and came to the mountain of God, to Horeb. (Exodus 3:10)

The Zohar explains:

Said Rabbi Yosi: "From the time when Moses was born, the Holy Spirit never left him. He discerned by means of the holy spirit that that desert was sanctified and prepared by God as the place for Israel's acceptance of the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven (the Sinaitic Law), therefore, he led the flock away ... as he did not wish them to tread that spot." (Zohar Shmot 21a)

Moses was drawn like a magnet4 to the place of spiritual revelation, and the core of that place was the desert. However, the choice of the desert as place of spirituality is not immediately understood.

When man was created he was placed in a garden; Eden was a beautiful place, with flowing rivers, lush flora, pleasing to the eye. A more pastoral setting cannot be imagined. And, most importantly, the Spirit of God permeated the entire expanse. Work was unknown, struggle undiscovered. Man and beast lived in unity, idyllic and ideal. In a word, paradise.

The desert seems like the very antithesis of Eden: barren and empty, either too warm or too cold,5 desolate, lifeless, devoid of hope. The Torah describes the desert where the Jews wandered:

...Great and terrible wilderness, where were venomous serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water. (Deut. 8:15)

The only hint of Eden is the venomous snake seeking victims. Indeed, it seems strange that this wilderness should be the epicenter of spirituality.

 

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A PLACE OF COMPLETENESS

Upon contemplation, perhaps this antithesis illustrates precisely why the desert is a place to find spiritual completeness. In the Garden of Eden, when man walked with God, there was no need to work or toil. But man destroyed that world, he hid from his Maker, causing a terrible exile which has lasted through the millennia.

The desert is the perfect place to find God.

Perhaps the vast desert, where supplies are scarce and self-preservation ephemeral, is the perfect place to find God. Indeed, the Jews' experience during their voyage is "Eden-like" in some ways. Here, man did not need to plow, harvest or irrigate. Supplies were celestially bestowed.6 Man was free. The Torah's description of the desert, cited above, continues, contrasting the danger of the desert with the Divine benevolence exhibited.

Who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, where were venomous serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought you water out of the rock of flint. Who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers knew not, that He might humble you, and that He might test you, to do you good in the end. And you say in your heart, "My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth." And you shall remember the Lord your God; for He is who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day. (Deut. 8:15-18)

The downside of exiled man having to work for his daily bread, is the delusion of grandeur when he achieves a modicum of success. The proud man says: "My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth." The desert is a wonderful place to develop trust in God, to become rehabilitated from the confusions borne of the post-Eden experience.

The objective of the desert experience was for jaded man to develop more trust in God, in an attempt to regain his lost innocence. In the future when the Jews would rebel, their heroic march into the unknown would be fondly recalled:7

Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, "Thus said the Lord; 'I remember you, the devotion of your youth, your love like a bride, when you went after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.'" (Jeremiah 2:2)8

God could certainly be found in the desert. The Cloud of Glory, perhaps more than any other symbol, represented their special relationship to God in the desert. Upon the lifting of the cloud they traveled; upon the settling of the cloud they encamped. The cloud was their constant companion, representing Divine benevolence and care.

And on the day that the Tabernacle was erected the cloud covered the Tabernacle, the Tent of the Testimony; and at the evening there was upon the Tabernacle like the appearance of fire, until the morning. So it was always; the cloud covered it by day, and the appearance of fire by night. And when the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, then after that the People of Israel journeyed; and in the place where the cloud abode, there the People of Israel pitched their tents. At the commandment of the Lord the People of Israel journeyed, and at the commandment of the Lord they camped; as long as the cloud abode upon the Tabernacle they rested in their tents. And when the cloud remained long upon the Tabernacle many days, then the People of Israel kept the charge of the Lord, and journeyed not. And so it was, when the cloud was a few days upon the Tabernacle; according to the commandment of the Lord they abode in their tents, and according to the commandment of the Lord they journeyed. ... At the commandment of the Lord they rested in the tents, and at the commandment of the Lord they journeyed; they kept the charge of the Lord, at the commandment of the Lord by the hand of Moses.(Numbers 9:15-23)

And the People of Israel took their journeys out of the wilderness of Sinai; and the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran. (Numbers 10:12)

Not only did the cloud set the itinerary, but it was intrinsically related to the Tabernacle, always hovering above the structure. For nearly forty years, the cloud and the Tabernacle accompanied the Jews in their travels.

 

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HOLIDAY OF SUKKOT

The Cloud of Glory in the desert is closely related to the holiday of Sukkot, which commemorates the Jews' sojourn in the desert. There is a question among the sages whether the booths represents the tents of the Israelites or the clouds which offered Divine protection.

For it has been taught: "For I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, These were clouds of glory," so says Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva says, "They made for themselves real booths." (Sukka 11b)

According to both opinions, the sukkah experience allows us to leave the comforts of our homes and to place our trust in God alone. The question is: Are we commemorating the actual, physical tents in which our ancestors lived in the desert, or the clouds which directed and protected them for forty years?

Analysis of the chronology of events in the desert leads to an additional association: When Moses came down from Sinai the second time, the date was the 10th of Tishrei – Yom Kippur. Immediately, the Jews began to construct the Tabernacle. In our experience, we begin to build our sukkah right after Yom Kippur. Evidently, the Sukkah which we build is associated with the Tabernacle – by virtue of the clouds which hovered above.

The Shla haKadosh insists that even the seemingly mundane practice of marking the planks of the sukkah wood, indicating north, east, south, and west, is actually a sacred task: Just as each wall of the Tabernacle was marked due to its unique holiness, so too each wall in the sukkah possesses its own holiness.

 

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THE SCAPEGOAT

There is one commandment that serves as a further link between these concepts. This was the mitzvah which brought the holiness of the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) and the wilderness into sharp contrast: the scapegoat.

And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the People of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of an appointed man into the wilderness. And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities to a land not inhabited; and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22)

Even after the Jews enter their land there is still a "wilderness element" which needs to be neutralized. In Midrashic literature this power is associated with the dark forces of evil identified with Esau and his angel Sama'el.

Similarly, from the side of Isaac there issued two sons, one of whom was blessed and the other cursed on high and below; the two separated, each going off towards his own side, the one making his abode in the Holy Land, the other on Mount Seir, being as he was a cunning hunter, a man of the field (Genesis 25:27). The latter had his home in the desert, in regions of waste and desolation, while the former dwelt in tents, all being fitly ordained. Hence it is that there are two grades, "blessed" and "cursed", each ranged on its own side. From the one issue all blessings in the upper and the lower worlds, all beneficence, all light, all deliverance, all redemption; whilst the other is the source of all curses, all wars and bloodshed, all desolation and evil, and all defilement. (Zohar Bereshit, 184b)

The Zohar explains that the forty years in the desert were meant to destroy this power once and for all.9

The Holy One led Israel through a terrible wilderness wherein were fiery serpents and scorpions, indeed, the most fearful wilderness in the world. Why did He do this? Because in the hour when they left Egypt and increased to the number of sixty myriad souls, the Holy Kingdom was strengthened and stood firm, high above all, and the Moon was illumined, and thus the wicked dominion, the "other side," was subdued, and the Holy One brought the Israelites out in order to lead them through the terrible wilderness, the very realm and domain of Sama'el the wicked, in order that the evil power might be broken and the ruler of the regions of darkness be crushed, that it might rear its head no more. Had the Israelites not sinned, the Holy One would have resolved to remove him altogether from the world. Therefore, He led them through his very dominion and territory. But when they sinned the serpent stung them many a time, and then was fulfilled that which was written: He shall bruise thy head and you shall bruise his heel10 (Genesis 3: 15)(Zohar Sh'mot 183b)11

Even after the Jews entered Israel and the Temple was built, this tension still existed.

It is written ... When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the Lord thy God for the good land which he has given you (Deut. 8:10). It is evident from this verse that grace after meals is a duty in the Land of Israel; but whence do we know that it is a duty in other lands also? Now, when the Holy One created the world, He divided it into two parts: one part that should be habitable and the other a desert, the former on one side and the latter at the other. Then He re-divided the habitable part in such a manner that it formed a circle, the center of which is the Holy Land. The center of the Holy Land is Jerusalem, and, again, the center of Jerusalem is the Holy of Holies, to which all the abundance of nourishment and all good things for the whole inhabited world flow in from above, and there is no place in this inhabited world that is not nourished and sustained from that source. The desert land He also divided, and there is no desert in the world so terrible and sinister as that where for forty long years Israel wandered, before its power was destroyed, of which it is written: Who led you through that great and terrible wilderness (Deut. 13:15). There the "other side" reigned, and the Children of Israel, despite this, traversed the desert forty years long, to break its power. Had they throughout that long period been worthy in heart and served the Holy One with faithfulness, the "other side" would have been wiped off the face of the earth; but they, time after time, provoked the Holy One to anger, and in like measure did the "other side" prevail, so that they became subject to its power ... Therefore Moses ruled alone over that place, and there was he buried, and in order to let all future generations know that those who died in the wilderness will rise again, He let their faithful shepherd abide among them, so that at the awakening of the Resurrection in the World to Come they may find themselves all together. It may be asked, If that wilderness consisted of what was left over from the power of the "other side", why did the Holy One command that the goat of the Day of Atonement should be sent to a mountain called Azazel (Leviticus 16:8,10,26), and not to a mountain in that wilderness in which Israel had sojourned? The answer is that the sojourn of the Israelites in that wilderness for forty years had broken its power, while, again, its power increased in a region where human feet had not ever trodden. And the mountain to which the goat was sent is a great and mighty rock, and below it are depths where man has never trodden. There the "other side" has power enough to consume his prey undisturbed, so that he leaves Israel alone and there is no one to bring accusations against them. The domain of the mystery of the Faith is in that very central point of the Holy Land which is in the Holy of Holies, the place where the Shechina dwelt. And even though She dwells there no longer, and the Holy of Holies exists no more, yet for Her sake the whole world is still supplied with food, and nourishment and satisfaction ever stream forth, emanating from thence to all the inhabited regions of the world. (Zohar, 2:157a)

It is fascinating, that the person who would lead the scapegoat into the wilderness had the option of seeking shelter in a Sukkah:

Some of the nobility of Jerusalem used to go with him up to the first booth. There were ten booths from Jerusalem to the cliff... at every booth they would say to him: here is food and here is water. They went with him from booth to booth, except the last one. For he would not go with him up to the cliff, but stand from afar, and behold what he was doing.

At every booth they would say to him: here is food and water. A Tanna taught: "Never did any one [who carried the goat away] find it necessary to use it, but [the reason of this provision is because] you cannot compare one who has bread in his basket with one who has no bread in his basket." (Yoma 67a)

 

* * *

 

BATTLE WITH THE SERPENT

The spiritual battle with the serpent of old is a difficult one. As the serpent caused the first exile from Eden, so in the desert the Jews were assaulted again by serpents.12

...great and terrible wilderness, where were venomous serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water. (Deut. 8:15)

The struggle between the tents of Jacob and the wilderness of Esau is the eternal battle between good and evil, between life and death. In the desert, the Jews were to receive the Torah and forever vanquish the power of evil. Instead, they were lured into wishing to remain in the desert rather than enter the Promised Land. At that moment death became their inheritance -- death in the desert.

At that moment death in the desert became their inheritance.

Even after entering the land, a yearly rite symbolized this struggle, where one man armed with a goat would wander into the wilderness. If he felt weak, he had numerous tents to enter and gain strength. Hopefully the offering would be accepted and the crimson string representing Esau would turn white, indicating that the sins of the People of Israel had been cleansed and forgiven by God.13

With time, we became too much like Esau: instead of mending the world, we emulated Esau, and the world was plunged further into sin and emptiness. As a result the Temple and all of Jerusalem became a wasteland – deserted.

The time will yet come when evil is obliterated, and the world becomes healed. On that day the ruins of Jerusalem will be rebuilt and become Eden-like, and song will fill the land.

For the Lord shall comfort Zion; he will comfort all her ruins; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found in there, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody. (Isaiah 51:3)

We have been blessed to witness part of this prophecy come to fruition. For that, we give thanks. We are overwhelmed that our generation has been chosen to witness such miracles. Yet we know that there is still more to be accomplished. We hope and pray that we will meet the challenge. For on that day there will be no more mourning, only joy -- everlasting joy and song.


NOTES

 

  1. The term is used in Rabbinic sources, for some examples see: Misha Yoma 7:1; Mishna Sotah 7:7; Mishna Menachot 4:3; Midrash Rabba Bamidbar 2:11; Rashi Shmot 30:15, Vayikra 23:19, 23:25, 23:37. (return to text)

     

  2. See the comments of the Netziv in his introduction to "Haemek Davar". (return to text)

     

     

  3. See: Exodus 5:2-3 And Pharaoh said, "Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, nor will I let Israel go." And they said, "The God of the Hebrews has met with us; let us go, we pray you, three days' journey into the desert, and sacrifice to the Lord our God; lest he fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword."

     

    See: Exodus 7:16 And you shall say to him, "The Lord God of the Hebrews has sent me to you, saying, 'Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness; and, behold, till now you would not hear.'"

    See: Exodus 8:23 We will go three days' journey into the wilderness, and sacrifice to the Lord our God, as he shall command us. And Pharaoh said, "I will let you go, that you may sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness; only you shall not go very far away; entreat for me." (return to text)

  4. The Zohar uses the phrase "as metal is drawn to a magnet" in the next line. (return to text)

     

  5. The Maharal notes that the holidays are in the spring and fall, not summer or winter, when the weather is pleasant – not too cold or warm. (return to text)

     

     

  6. Similarly Elijah has a major revelatory experience in the desert which has direct overtones from Sinai: 1 Kings 19:4-12. But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree; and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, "It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers." And as he lay and slept under a broom tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said to him, "Arise and eat." And he looked, and, behold, there was a cake baked on the coals, and a jar of water at his head. And he ate and drank, and laid himself down again. And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, "Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for you." And he arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that meal forty days and forty nights to Horeb the Mount of God. And he came there to a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" And he said, "I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword; and I am the only one left; and they seek my life, to take it away." And he said, "Go out, and stand upon the mount before the Lord." And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. (return to text)

     

     

  7. There is a difference of opinion if the generation of the desert would have a share in the world to come, for Rav Yochnan this verse provides the clinching argument. See Sanhedrin 110b, Zohar Berishit 113b. (return to text)

     

  8. See Rashi Sh'mot 12:39. (return to text)

     

     

  9. The number 40 according to the Zohar is associated with 40 lashes received by a sinner in order to purge the sin. (Zohar Sh'mot 183b) "And forty years long were they chastised by him, which corresponded to the forty lashes of the judges." (return to text)

     

  10. In this context we understand the reference to Jacob which comes from the word heel. When Jacob is subservient to Esau the "heel" aspect of Jacob is prominent. (return to text)

     

     

  11. This teaching is introduced in the Zohar as a teaching of an anonymous old man (Elijah?) who resides in the desert who came to celebrate sukkot with the community:

     

    "Rabbi Shimon and his son, Rabbi Eleazar, were out walking one day, accompanied by Rabbi Abba and Rabbi Yosi. As they went along, they beheld ahead of them an old man, who led by the hand a young child. Rabbi Shimon, on perceiving them, exclaimed, turning to Rabbi Abba: 'Assuredly, we shall hear new and instructive expositions from that old man.' So they walked on more quickly, and presently overtook the couple. When they approached the old man, Rabbi Shimon said to him: 'You travel in heavy garments. Who are you?' The stranger replied: 'I am a Jew.' Said Rabbi Shimon: 'Verily we shall hear new interpretations today from you. Whence are you from?' The old man answered: 'I was wont until but lately to live retired from the world, a recluse in the desert, where I studied the Torah and meditated on sacred matters, but now I am come into the midst of the habitation of men, to sit in the shadow of the Holy One in these days of the seventh month.'" (return to text)

     

  12. See Zohar, Bereshith 1:138a where Esau is referred to as a serpent: "And observe further that because Esau was drawn after that serpent, Jacob dealt with him crookedly like the serpent, who is cunning and goes crookedly, as we read: And the serpent was more cunning ... (Genesis 3:1). Jacob then dealt with him after the manner of the serpent in order to draw him further serpentward, so that he should separate further from himself and thus not have any share with him either in this world or in the world to come; and our teachers have said, 'When a man comes to kill you, kill him first.'" See also: Zohar Berishit 23b where Sama'el, the archangel of Esau, is identified with the serpent. (return to text)

     

     

  13. Yoma 67a "Originally they used to tie the thread of crimson wool to the entrance of the Ulam within, and as soon as the he-goat reached the wilderness, it turned white. Then they knew that the commandment concerning it had been fulfilled, as it is said: 'If your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white wool.'" (return to text)

 

Published: May 19, 2001

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