3 June 2019
Today’s Torah portion marks the beginning of the fourth book of the Torah: Bamidmar. Parashat Bamidmar, which can be translated as “in a wilderness” is the overture to a book describing the Israelites’ journey from Mount Sinai to the edge of the Promised Land. The people had experienced the God of Israel delivering them from slavery in Egypt and giving them a new standard of living in the form of the Torah at Mount Sinai. By the end of the book of Leviticus (Vayikra) the Israelites know, in theory, how God expected them to behave and to live as his chosen people: in holiness and in justice towards their fellow men. However, they have still not reached their destination. God had promised them a land flowing with milk and honey but after they had left Egypt they find themselves in a wilderness. Why did God choose this detour?
Israel’s time in the wilderness was a time of transition and a place between two stages of an identity of this people. How can a population of slaves be transformed into a people serving their God in freedom and in holiness? This cannot happen overnight and the fact that the people are physically free from the Egyptian bondage does not automatically mean that they are free in their minds. The desert functions as a place where the Israelites will make their first steps in their new life under the regime of God. In the wilderness there are no societies, no cities, no kings and no rulers. All members of the Israelites are equal for this moment and in this place, and their single ruler is God. He will lead them through the desert with the aim to strengthen the bond between his people and himself. This will serve as a foundation for the entry into the Promised Land.
This centeredness towards God becomes visible in the physical arrangement of the tribes of Israel around the Ark of the Covenant and the Tent of Meeting. The Parasha describes in detail where every tribe is situated around the Tent of Meeting. The tribal groups are all equidistant to the center enabling each member of the tribes to focus on the Ark of the Covenant, be it when leaving home, be it when returning to the camp. Thus the constant physical orientation of the Israelites towards the tent of meeting could gradually develop into a constant internal orientation towards their God (cf. Etz Hayim). Challenges in the wilderness will surely come, but in the beginning of the book Bamidbar the Torah emphasizes how the journey should be undertaken – as a people of equals, centered on their God.
For Reflection and Discussion:  How could you reorient your spiritual life by the help of practical “physical” steps?  Think about how you could spend some time with God in a wilderness.
Bibliography: Etz Hayim, Torah and Commentary (NY, 2001); Inspired also by the insights of Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks on this parasha in 5771 (accessible on YouTube).
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