B'Midbar is the first portion of the fourth book of the Torah. Both this book, and this Torah portion, are known by two names. For many of us, the familiar English name of the book, Numbers, reflects the census that begins the book: We read the names of the male representatives of the tribal clans, each man, “from the age of 20 years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms.”
The Hebrew name of the book, B’midbar, in the wilderness, “aptly captures the challenges the book describes.” Professor Tamara Eskenazi teaches, “Wilderness is a place — or time — without orienting landmarks or structure.” This opening portion of this powerful book “charts the journey through a wilderness and attempts to create new structures in this intermediate space for future life in the land.”
Rabbi David Greenstein states that the opening sentence of the portion introduces the first of “a series of seeming opposites,” for God speaks to Moses “in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting.” In the course of this portion, we will read about exposure and shelter, the named and the unnamed, those who are counted and those who do the counting. Who is included and who is excluded?
The very names of the portion, “Numbers” and “in the wilderness,” amplify the central tension. Freed from slavery, our ancestors are faced with the challenges of navigating a forbidding landscape while creating social institutions that will enable them to live in security.
The naming of the tribes, and the enumeration of their members, becomes the first step towards the elaborate and exacting staging of the tribes’ location in relation to the Tent of Meeting, the community’s sacred center. This ingathering is one important step in nation formation, in creating structures that will sustain the Israelites as they become a free people in their own land.
Like our ancestors, we experience liminality, living in the in-between, at many junctures in our lives. We know the tension between boundless wilderness and confined space, between undifferentiated masses and specific designations of membership. When we change jobs, move to a new city, experience an illness that changes us, or lose a loved one, we may feel that we have entered an uncharted landscape.
When we step into the wild, we find that we need material and spiritual provisions for the journey. If we are fortunate, we discover that entering the unknown is a necessary and potentially fruitful aspect of every journey. We are challenged by the wilderness as we cannot be when we’re in the familiar. Venturing into the unknown, we open ourselves to discovery and reap substantial and surprising insights.
Just as the Torah names the tribal representatives, each of us has the opportunity to count, to matter, during the 49 days that fall between Passover and Shavuot. We number each day of the Omer, discovering the power and promise of each day, knowing that if we stumble today, we will begin anew tomorrow.
Day by day, we count our way from Egypt to Sinai, from slavery to Torah. Our people’s circuitous journey through the uncharted landscape is mirrored by each of our own journeys through these days of counting, as, each year, we trudge towards Shavuot and new understandings of Torah and Judaism.
Perhaps this year, as we make our way through B’midbar and head towards Sinai, we will open ourselves to the wilderness of this transitional time. The Omer can serve as our compass as we make our way towards Sinai, towards new insight, new Torah.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org .