The portion begins with ‘in the wilderness or desert’. One year after receiving the Torah at Sinai we begin to move on into the next 39 years of wandering through a barren land. We had come out of Egypt (a metaphor for the world’s system) and headed to decision day, our meeting with G-d at Sinai, where we chose to follow (or as the early responses to G-d revealed- rebel against) His teachings and instructions, the Mitzvot. B’midbar opens in the second year after Egypt, the Land ahead of us seemingly within reach yet what should have taken a few days walk was in reality (due to our refusal to enter the Land in faith) a long 39 year march. Looking around us was…the wilderness, the dry dusty desert of endless sand and dry stone (if you’ve been there you’ll know what I mean). Wouldn’t it have been nice to come out of Egypt and then to suddenly arrive in the Land with nothing in between, yet the geographical reality was and is as true today for us all, there is a space between leaving one and arriving in the other. I believe G-d has even defined the territory of our nation and its surrounds to teach us things, and this is a clear case in point. In fact Rav Shaul would say many years later ‘these things were examples to us’, we should learn from them not only what our people did but also what the context was too. Why so? Because we may like to look back at those ancient times and assure ourselves that the ‘stories’ are nice, and then console ourselves that that was then, now we know better and we are an improved version of humanity, sort of humanity 3.1. We would not do the same things; after all, we have technology and knowledge. Think again, the columns and words of the Torah defy our confidence and shame our pride. Humanity is still human, we Jews haven’t really morphed into some super-race (even if our enemies think we actually do rule the world), we still trip and fall in sinful situations every day.
This portion falls between Pesach and Shavuot, the book-ends of one season. As we think back to, and spiritually apply, the four stages of redemption outlined in the Haggadah (four cups), it’s clear that although we COULD have just walked the short route to the Land of Promise and Inheritance and avoided the 40 years march in a barren land, the reality is that we all go through different stages and ‘cups’ in life. We so often live in the reality of wilderness and places of barrenness. We discover that our own redemption, which begins with a set point in time like our deliverance from Egypt, really is just day one. Sadly we can also make the same choices to walk without faith and trusting just as our ancestors did, and so sadly also reap the harvest of that sowing.
Yet the wilderness, the barrenness is more complex than that. In a strange way, although we made the decision to not enter the Land quickly, condemning ourselves to a long hard walk, we find that in some way the wilderness, the barren years were part of G-d’s overarching plan. I think none of us would want to choose this path, yet many of us walk it and have experienced it. In a strange, humanly speaking illogical way, the desert in fact becomes part of Israel’s survival. It was in the barren place that Israel would learn the techniques of survival as individuals, families, groups, community and as a nation. Not for us the likes of the TV heroes who go out and ‘survive’ eating anything with a pulse and degrading themselves in the process to a level barely human. In fact the opposite is true for the people of G-d. We are told that there are things we can’t eat (when the supply is already limited), and that we are to behave with the highest levels of dignity and morality, when the pressure to ‘go native’ in the harshness of the wilderness is at its highest, the survival of the fittest is no rule to live in the Kingdom of G-d by and certainly isn’t Torah. We learn the powerful lessons of faith and trusting in the wilderness, and that is why we so often experience that pain and barrenness, sometimes there is no other way.