Parashat B’midbar

In 30 CE the Roman Empire was at the height of its opulence and power. Its legions were unmatched and its territories stretched across most of the known world. At its head was a single man – the Emperor Tiberius. Whether in love or in hate it is an indisputable fact that the eyes of the whole world were fixed upon him. Indeed, for Romans at least, he was a god.  Unlike God, however, Tiberius could not be everywhere all at once so he ruled over his vast empire with a complex system of satraps, vassals and governors and procurators.  These men enjoyed great position and prestige as they often ruthlessly carried out his word whenever it was sent out to them from Rome. This was the system that was in place in 30 CE in a far flung corner of the Roman Empire, in Judea where the Emperor’s word was carried out by a collection of men: The Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate; Herod Antipas, who ruled the Galil in the north; his brother Philip, who ruled Iturea and Trachonitis; and Lysanias ruler of Abilene. Each owed their position and power to the Roman Emperor and thus obsequiously carried out his will. This situation is presented to us in the opening chapters of Luke’s besorah, which reads: “In the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius’ rule; when Pontius Pilate was governor of Y’hudah, Herod ruler of the Galil, his brother Philip ruler of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, with ‘Anan and Kayafa being the cohanim g’dolim; the word of G-d came to Yochanan Ben-Z’kharyah in the desert.” (Luke 3:1-2).

What an amazing passage! By this formula of words Luke not only fixes in time the precise moment that the Mashiach’s ministry began in earnest, but it makes a profound spiritual point that ought not to be missed. For in this passage we find the ultimate juxtaposition. On the one hand, there is a list of men of great power and authority who all looked upward to the divine Emperor, hanging on his words and anticipating his will. And yet on the other hand there is an obscure Jewish man with a peculiar diet and sartorial style who lived in isolated privation in the blazing heat of the dusty Judean desert. Indeed, Luke tells us that when the Word of God began to stir it did not come to the allegedly divine Emperor or his cronies, nor even to the urbane Jewish religious elite who lived in luxury in Jerusalem, but it came instead to a complete nobody, to Yochanan Ben-Z’kharyah, an ascetic Jew who sought the will and the Word of the God of Israel in the Judean desert. As the Scriptures tell us God chose “what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise; God chose what the world considers weak in order to shame the strong; and God chose what the world looks down on as common or regards as nothing in order to bring to nothing what the world considers important; so that no one should boast before God” (1Co 1:27-29).

Indeed, hasn’t this ever been God’s way? God is not impressed by the apparent grandeur of the world. He is no respecter of titles, of kings or of presidents as if by virtue of their position they are worthy of His Word. On the contrary, God’s Word comes to those who, like Yochanan, earnestly seek Him and dedicate their lives to serving Him. Of course none of us is perfect, and that’s where the desert comes in. Yochanan took himself off into the desert to hear God’s Word and that’s also where God took the Israelites after the Exodus so that there they could learn that man does not live by bread alone but by the Word of God. For “He humbled you, allowing you to become hungry, and then fed you with man, which neither you nor your ancestors had ever known, to make you understand that a person does not live on food alone but on everything that comes from the mouth of ADONAI” (Devarim 8:3).   Indeed, it is important to note in this respect that the Hebrew root dvr meaning ‘word‘ is contained in the title of this week’s parashah – bamidbar.  Have you ever wondered why God allows us to go through hard times? Times when everything seems to go wrong and it appears that we’ve been thrown into a spiritual desert? Perhaps it’s because God simply wants us to refocus on Him and to learn to hear His voice and receive His Word once again? Our lives can get so busy and confused that we can easily lose the ability to discern our Master’s voice. In the desert, however, there is silence, and it’s there in that silence that we have to learn once more to tune into His voice and receive His Words. Perhaps you’re going through a desert experience right now? I hope that this drash helps you to contextualise your experience and make your stay there a little easier. So wait upon the Lord! Put away all distractions and endeavour instead to tune in to His still small voice once more. Let us all remember that God’s Word is no respecter of persons but instead comes to those who humble themselves and eagerly seek it.

Rabbi Yehoshua