On the week before Shavuot, we begin the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible, known in English as Numbers. In Hebrew, the book is called BaMidbar (wilderness, desert).
Already we’re experiencing some confusion, why the two different names? Each name refers to a different verse. The name of the book in Hebrew is related to the first verse, which sets the stage for where God speaks to Moses…in the wilderness.
However, the English/Latin name is related to the second verse when God requests Moses to take a census of the Israelite community.
There is a beautiful reason given for the spiritual connection between the two verses but this post will instead focus on the deeper meaning contained within the first verse.
וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם
On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting……
What is interesting here is the meaning of the Hebrew word for wilderness.
The beauty of the Hebrew language is often, contained within each word, is its opposite meaning. These paradoxes speak to the very essence of creation, in that there is potential for opposing aspects: darkness and light, Inclinations toward the good or evil, our spiritual inclinations versus our bodily passions.
In this case, the Hebrew root word for BaMidbar also means two things at once. There is both a sense of being limited and yet expansive.
How can that be so?
The three letter Hebrew root of BaMidbar is Dalet (D), Bet (B) and Reysh (R), means all of these: desert, wilderness, words, to speak and thing.
So in a sense, it means that which is limitless yet that which is tangible and identifiable.
It is a word that has so much potential steeped within it. For example if we take just one meaning, speech, it can be something that can be used to transmit ideas that are grand and awesome. yet, when used incorrectly, speech can be reduced to the petty and heartless.
Similarly containing opposites, the wilderness can be a place of peace or a place of threat.
There is a beautiful teaching from the Ohr Torah Institution and Rabbi S. Riskin about this:
It was by means of these Divine words [dibrot] that even the desert [midbar] —a metaphor for an inhospitable and alien exile environment: boiling hot by day, freezing cold by night, and deficient in water, the elixir of life—can be transformed into sacred space, the place of the Divine word (dibur].
The world is a desert [midbar] waiting to become a sanctuary [d’vir] by means of God’s word [dibur], communicated by inspiring leaders [dabarim].
Being in the wilderness allowed us to ‘lose ourselves’ enough to be able to receive the Torah. In the wilderness, our destiny was secured by God and so our very ability to live was granted by God every day. In this there was a sense of comfort, even in the middle of ‘nowhere’.
Our sages put it this way:
Anyone who does not make themselves ownerless like the wilderness cannot acquire the wisdom and the Torah. Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7.
This is noted again in the Talmud,
One should be as open as a wilderness to receive the Torah. Nedarim 55a
It is through this process that we can begin the journey that is the source of our lifeline, the Torah. We need to lessen our ego-driven lives to be open enough to receive Torah.
The still small voice in you….how can you honor that voice? How can you become “ownerless” in order to be open to the Divine experience?
I am offering this Shavuot Visualization to you should you want to enter the world of the D-B-R….A Shavuot Visualization
© Ruth Schapira, 2020. All rights reserved.