Graduating into the wilderness


In this week’s Torah portion, we begin a new book, Ba-midbar – “In the Wilderness” – or as we call it in English, the Book of Numbers. Unlike its companion books in the Pentateuch, the themes and focus of Numbers are relatively less clear and familiar to many. Of course Genesis is about the creation of the world and the origins of the Israelites; Exodus covers our redemption from slavery in Egypt; Leviticus enumerates the laws of the priests; and Deuteronomy (“the Second Law”) is an eloquent recap of all that preceded. In comparison, Numbers is a hodgepodge of statistics, sacrifices and stories.  And such stories! It begins with a census and meanders with the Israelites for 40 years with tales of talking donkeys and curses turned into blessings, rebels consumed by the earth and fiery bread sacrifices rising up to the heavens, a zealous skewering and sibling slanders, and spies who think they’re but grasshoppers in the land flowing with milk and honey. What are we to make of this book?

Perhaps the names we call it – Numbers in English, Ba-midbar in Hebrew – give us some hint on how to take it. Why begin with a census, specifying the names of the tribal leaders and the numbers of their men basically eligible for the military or other national service?

Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher, the 14th century Spanish Biblical exegete, brings a midrash that suggests God counts us because He cares. He compares it to a king who has two storehouses, one where he keeps his straw and chaff, the other where he stores his wheat. He’s indifferent to the precise quantities of the straw and chaff in the first storehouse. It’s good enough to know where to find them when he needs them. But he knows the precise number of each grain of wheat in his second storehouse, taking daily inventory of what’s added and taken away, because the wheat is food, and has special value to him. And so it is with the inventory of the Israelites. Maybe.

In another midrash, R. Bahya suggests the point of “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness – ba-midbar – of Sinai” (Num. 1:1) is that the wilderness itself is a place of revelation, in an almost elemental sense. In this midrash, God reveals himself in fire (the burning bush), in water (“Lord, when you went out from Seir…the heavens poured, the clouds poured water” [Judg. 5:4]), and “in the wilderness.”  Why these three things? To teach you that God’s revelation is available to all the inhabitants of the world, because it’s revealed in elements that belong to no one but God and should be free for everyone: fire, water and “the wilderness.” Yes, but fire also burns; you can drown in water; and you can get lost in the wilderness. Free, but potentially dangerous.

Yet even feeling lost in the wilderness can be a place of revelation, as modern Biblical interpreter Avivah Zornberg asserts in her new commentary on the Book of Numbers, aptly titled “Bewilderments.” Trying to orient yourself in a disorienting world, finding your way while you’re on your way is knowledge that can only be revealed through experience.  Zornberg chooses a wonderful quotation from T.S. Eliot as the epigraph for “Bewilderments:”

In order to arrive at what you are not.

You must go through the way in which you are not.

And what you do not know is the only thing you know.

In this May graduation season (as well as the Shavuot “season of the gift of our Torah”), it is hard not to sense that our graduates are commencing forth similarly into a new kind of wilderness – of a particularly daunting job market, impending loan payments, not sure where and with whom they’ll live, confronting now on their own the minor and major disappointments and successes they are bound to face, re-thinking who they are, and second-guessing the paths they’ve taken so far. Return on investment? Note to graduates: It took the Israelites 40 years to begin to see a return on the investment God made when he brought us out of Egypt. Reliable statistics suggest that you (yes, even liberal arts graduates) will see a return on your investment (greater earning power, job security and satisfaction than your peers without college degrees) by 10 years from graduation – much less time!

So yes, you’re going into the wilderness, ba-midbar, but now’s the time for a new kind of learning, a new kind of revelation, that can only come from experience – the trial and error experience of applying what you’ve learned and thought you knew. As in the Pentateuch, Genesis revealed to us our origins, Exodus let us know what freedom and redemption taste like, Leviticus gives us rules for guidance, but it’s Ba-midbar that throws us into the wilderness to apply what we know, to see if it works and adapt when it doesn’t. With a little luck, help from friends and family, and providential guidance, we’ll make it to Deuteronomy, and recap and see how it all fits together from 20/20 hindsight.  “And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness – or bewilderments – of Sinai.” Hag Sameah!

RABBI JONATHAN BRUMBERG-KRAUS is Professor of Religion and Coordinator of Jewish Studies, Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts.