Parshat Bamidbar: Reflected in the Shifting Sands

With everything that’s been going on in Israel this past week, I find myself caught in moments of memory.  Years ago, I remember exploring the Sinai desert, mostly on an Egged bus (Israel’s public bus system).  A group of strangers would board the bus in Tel Aviv and we would all prepare ourselves for hours and hours of sitting as the bus took us into the desert.  This was long before we had personal technological devices to distract us, though every bus had an intercom system.  Sometimes the bus driver would entertain us with jokes or singing on the intercom, and sometimes that helped hold-off the boredom, but we had no say in the matter so you prayed for a decent driver ‘host’.  

We formed a community on that bus each time.  Debates often centred on whether someone should be allowed to smoke on the bus if it bothered someone else.  Everyone in Israel smoked so it usually only bothered a tourist.  That would start a debate about who should have the right to vote about who was allowed to smoke.  There was air conditioning on the bus but you couldn’t tell.  I once held up a bottle of coke to the vent above me in the hopes it would at least reduce how hot the liquid was inside.  I was near the front of the bus and I remember that after holding it for about 10 minutes, a voice from the back yelled ‘Geveret (Miss), you can hold that bottle until the Messiah comes, it’s not going to change anything’, — and community was established.

On one of these trips, in the middle of the desert, I felt the bus stop and heard the doors open.  In walked a man in robes, he didn’t say anything.  After a while, the driver turned to him and said ‘Where?’ and the man just pointed diagonally right.  A few minutes later he tapped the bus driver on the shoulder, the bus stopped and the man got out.  The entire time we had been in the middle of nowhere.  I asked someone what had just happened and I was told the man is a Bedouin, a nomad, who lives in the desert.  There seems to be an agreement that a bus will pick up a nomad and stop wherever they indicate with no fare requested and no questions asked.  The bus community had developed a bit of international relations and everyone voiced silent agreement.

I’ve always wondered how the Bedouin man knew where to get off the bus.  What geographic marker could be meaningful in a desert of shifting sands?  Is he looking for the same things I would look for?  Is he looking for markers at all or is he looking for a new place that invites him to explore?  Are the moments on our bus a shortcut, or an adventure, or a visit?  Could I possibly have common dialogue with this man if I remind myself that ancient Israelites also wandered in the desert?

It’s only when I think about the last question, the ancient Israelites, that I start to get some answers.

We never wandered aimlessly in the wilderness of Sinai, we were led and we followed.  The desert terrain never became meaningful to us, the manifestation of God was our constant, we moved where God showed us.  The wilderness became our Egged bus.

This Shabbat, we begin reading the book of Numbers, in Hebrew, Bamidbar, which is also this week’s parsha. Bamidbar literally means ‘In the Wilderness’. Typically, culture and society are informed by their surroundings (for example, a group living in a cold climate will learn to exist in warm clothing). However, in Bamidbar we are shown the possibilities of building something strong from the inside out. Ancient Israel cannot form itself around its surroundings, they are surrounded by desert… the sands shift, the rocks all melt together into a visual of dust… and so they must bond as a group internally with the structure and vision the Torah has provided.

In this week’s parsha, ancient Israel begins its journey through the desert to establish itself in the land of Israel.  Once in the land we can view the wilderness but it must never be a comfortable place for us. Remember, the desert represents impermanence through its shifting nature. And so it is fitting that this week is the holiday of Shavuot, the celebration of receiving the Torah.  It is the Torah that will give us the structure and vision of what a society of value and ethics can look like. It is the Torah that provides the boundary against the desert — against the wilderness.  

When we are in the desert, we lose Torah.  In the desert, our morals and principles shift.  That is why ancient Israel is brought through the desert and is never told to settle there.  Recently, the events in Israel have challenged us in so many ways.  At times we were angry and other times we were baffled.  Some actions of violence in Israeli cities, where innocent people were trapped in the angry spillover, brought our thoughts back to the desert — but we know in our hearts those actions are not our way.  Personally, I have heard an overwhelmingly strong Jewish response critical of these actions. We are brought back from the desert with our feet solidly planted on Torah values.

Parshat Bamidbar and the holiday of Shavuot remind us so strongly that our ancient Jewish past can inform our modern Jewish moment.  We stand together as Jews, we support Israel as our homeland, and we celebrate the Torah as our grounding document.

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