“Lost in the Wilderness“
By Rabbi Michael Menitoff, Dean of the Rabbinical School
The Hebrew name of each of the books of the Pentateuch is either its very first word or what is considered its initial significant word. Thus, Bereisheet, Shemot, Vayikra, Bamidbar, and Devarim. The corresponding English designation of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy may be related to the Hebrew appelations, or not. For instance, Genesis is. On the other hand, the name Exodus represents more of the theme of the entire book, rather than the list of names (Shemot) of Jacob’s family who emigrated to Egypt at a time of famine and who grew exponentially thereafter (An old Hebrew name for the book happens to be Sefer Yetsiat Mitzrayim [ the book of the departure, or exodus, from Egypt]). The names Leviticus and Deuteronomy are really Greek derivatives, the one meaning relating the Levites, spoken about in much of the book; and the other meaning the second law (taken from a phrase in Deut. 17:18, mishnei haTorah, a second teaching), representing that Deuteronomy is a retelling of earlier books.
Bamidbar is especially interesting, in this regard. Different from some of the other books, its English name, Numbers, is less reflective of the theme of the whole of the book than its Hebrew designation. The numbers referenced are those of a census of the Israelites at the beginning of the book, and another toward the end. However, Bemidbar (In the Wilderness) is much more expressive of the overarching description of the forty-year Israelite wanderings in the desert.
The theme of Bamidbar, of seemingly endless wandering from place to place in the wilderness, resonates particularly strongly with me for many reasons, two of which I shall briefly explore.
The first of these has to do with the relentless challenge of transitioning from the stature of a slave people to that of a free people, and perhaps the need for wandering and finding one’s way, in between. Although they witnessed G-d’s miraculous plagues and the parting of the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds), and not withstanding G-d’s breathtaking revelation at Mt. Sinai, the people constantly complain, even to the point of questioning both Moses’ and G-d’s leadership. The go so far as to suggest they would have been better off had they stayed back in Egypt. Not only were the Israelites trekking in the physical desert wilderness of the Sinai. The were also seeking to ambulate the spiritual wilderness of their souls and their total beings, not yet able to understand or appreciate whence they had come, and where they or their descendents were yet to go. Wilderness is then not simply an external description of the arid, barren area they had traversed. It is at the very heart of the emotional and spiritual landscape in which they were finding themselves.
Another thought from Bamidbar’s wilderness that strikes me is that of the omnipresence of the Almighty. To be sure, G-d was found in the peak experiences of the aforementioned miracles. But G-d was also to be found in the relatively ordinary activies of living life in the nondescript wilderness. In terms of time duration, the dramatic, pinnacle-like moments represent only an infinitesimal portion of our existence. What takes up much more time & energy is the day-to-day challenge of living. G-d is to be found in both domains, the mundane and the sublime, as long as we, in fact, seek G-d and recognize his presence. May all of us live as truly emancipated Jews who take cognizance of the glory of G-d’s presence at all times.