- Rabbi Isaac Roussel
The Value of the Wilderness
Today we begin Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. Bamidbar means “in the wilderness” which comes from the opening words of our parsha,
וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָֹ֧ה אֶל־משֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י…
And God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai.
It is called Numbers in English because it begins with the taking of a census.
We always begin this book just before Shavuot, which is tomorrow night. This is appropriate as the Torah was given in the midbar, the wilderness.
There are few aspects of the wilderness that I would like to dwell upon today.
First, the wilderness is not owned by anyone. This our Sages teach points to the fact that the Torah is not meant to be owned by anyone. Yes, Israel was given the Torah, but only to imbibe it and then disseminate it to the nations of the world!
Like the wilderness, we need to make ourselves ownerless. The reason that God took us out of Egypt was so that we would be unfettered of our Egyptian masters and free to be “enslaved” to Him. This is why in the morning blessings we say “Blessed are You Adonai our God who did not make me a slave.” Slaves are unable to perform all of the mitzvot because they have another master and other duties.
Second, the wilderness is undeveloped and therefore there are no distractions. There are no restaurants, cinemas, marketplaces, and no people. It is a place free of things that would distract us from Hashem.
If we are to grow in Hashem’s likeness, we need to make wilderness places in our lives; places free of distraction where we can focus on Him and His Torah. This is very difficult in a world pervasive in distractions. Between TV and cell phones, we are constantly distracted. It is easy to fill quiet time with more noise. I know that I have struggled with this myself. All of us desperately need to be deliberate in setting aside time for prayer, reflection, and study. And in our world it must be a deliberate discipline that we foster in ourselves or it will never happen.
Shabbat is such a wilderness time. If we are shomer shabbes, then we have at least once a week, a time free of distractions. A time for study, worship, and prayer. But I think we do need more than just once a week. We need wilderness time several times a week if not daily.
Elijah fled to the wilderness where he could hear that still small voice.
Third, the wilderness is a place of humility. It is a vast place of nothing but dirt and scrub brush. Our Sages say that Hahem chose Mt. Sinai because it was the lowliest of mountains. This teaches us that in order for us to imbibe Torah, we must nullify our egos and become humble and teachable. After we daven the Amidah we recite “May my soul be to all like the dust. Open my heart to Your Torah and let my soul pursue Your commandments.” Hashem can only open our hearts and pour His Holy Torah in if we first make ourselves like dust. If we come to Him with our biases and hubris, unwilling to set aside our preconceived notions, we will not be able to receive Him. King David says "Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." He is making himself into a humble wilderness, willing for God to challenge any of his attitudes.
The Mechilta says that only those who ate the manna in the wilderness received the Torah at Sinai. This is because only those who put their full trust in God’s providence were open to it. They had bitachon, trust. If we have the bitachon of the wilderness then we will be able to receive His Holy Torah.
Fourth, the wilderness is a place for facing evil. The Talmud views the wilderness as an abode of temptation and demons. On Yom Kippur, one of the two goats bore the sins of Israel into the wilderness, being sent to Azazel. While the meaning of this term is uncertain, one interpretation is that it is an evil spirit dwelling in the wilderness.
Israel faced many trials and temptations in the wilderness and often failed. Yeshua, the One-Man-Israel recapitulates their temptation but succeeds where they failed. It is in that wilderness time that we can face our dark sides. Being humble like the wilderness, we can open our hearts to Hashem asking Him to reveal ungodly things in our lives. Are we tempted with anger, pride, judgmentalism, envy? Do we have hidden racial biases or biases against other minority groups?
Elijah fled to the wilderness to hear the still small voice, but it was the voice of God challenging him. He asks, “Elijah, why are you here?” Elijah speaks his desolation and complains that he is the only one left in Israel that is faithful to Hashem. But God tells him, “You don’t know about the many that I have still dedicated to me.” We can often be blind to our faults and sins. We need wilderness time to be quiet before God and to hear His challenges to our wayward ways.
Yeshua lived a wilderness life even in the midst of his work with the people. He often went off to pray in quiet so that he could hear Hashem’s still small voice. He was the ownerless wilderness, beholding only to his Father. He said, “I only say what the Father tells me.” He practiced wilderness bitachon, trusting the Father even unto the point of death. He desperately prayed for the cup of suffering to pass him by, but accepted that God knew what was best. And he faced down Azazel in the wilderness, clinging to the Father and the teachings of His Torah.
May we make wilderness time in our lives, freeing ourselves from the distractions of this world.
May we live a life of bitachon, partaking of the True Manna that comes down from heaven.
May we hear the still small voice confronting us with our faults and sins.
And then we will find ourselves not being driven towards Azazel, but into the arms of Hashem!