This week, we begin the book of Numbers, B’midbar in Hebrew. It starts on a very boring note: census data. Parshat B’midbar is seemingly not the most exiting stuff in the world. The book B'midbar will contain many stories. Indeed most of the book is story.
B’midbar was on my mind about three minutes after takeoff from the Airport in Eliat headed for Ben Gurion Airport. The sandy desert under us was creating strong thermals which translated into very strong turbulence. We diverted west to go around that turbulence, then headed back east over the Israeli and Jordanian evaporation ponds that are killing the Dead sea, then turned west once again to fly back over the Jordan, over Jericho to places that will be important in later history: Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Whether inadvertently or not, the plane followed a serpentine route out my window that wasn’t far off from the route we read of in the Book of Numbers that starts this week. What will take weeks for us to read in the synagogue and forty years to accomplish in B’midbar took thirty five minutes.
Some of that route I traveled on the ground only days before, on my way to Petra. According to the locals, somewhere around Petra is mount Hor where Aaron died. Not far away is the town of Wadi Mousa, in Arabic the Valley of Moses. This according to local legend is the Place, where the princes dig their own wells for the people or even possibly where Moses struck the rock. While most biblical scholars have problems with this legend, Indeed Petra was the capital of the Nabatean Empire based on its plentiful natural springs, which made it an Oasis in an otherwise inhospitable wilderness. Jordanian Route 53 which we took to Petra might be a close approximation to the original route around the Edomites territory (Numbers 21). In a comfy, air conditioned bus I saw much of the route into the land of Israel.
I’m very glad I wasn’t walking this. B’midbar means in the wilderness, and this is a very inhospitable place. At places it is the desert of swirling sand dunes, but more often there is are small tufts of grass-like plants spaced far apart between large peaks and rock outcroppings all blasted by wind and sand into strange, melted patterns. Bedouins still live in Southern Jordan and often one will see in this monochromatic landscape a thin black line of a Bedouin tent.
To take this way into the land would have been a character builder. And I think it did build a lot of character into the story of B’midbar. While the English and Latin names reflect the census at this week’s and the beginning of next week’s portion, the Hebrew is far more descriptive with the words in the wilderness.
Judaism breaks down the types of writing in the Torah and later works into two types: Halakah and Aggadah. Halakah is law. Aggadah is everything else, but for a medium for this everything is usually story. One such Aggadic passage in the Talmud
R. Abbahu and R. Hiyya b. Abba once came to a place; R. Abbahu expounded Aggada8 and R. Hiyya b. Abba expounded legal lore. All the people left R. Hiyya b. Abba and went to hear R. Abbahu, so that the former was upset. [R. Abbahu] said to him: ‘I will give you a parable. To what is the matter like? To two men, one of whom was selling precious stones and the other various kinds of small ware. To whom will the people hurry? Is it not to the seller of various kinds of small ware?’[Sotah 40a]
Story telling is attractive useful and not very expensive, and thus its appeal. The story that will happen in B’midbar is attractive, with many twists and turns to the plot. But is is extremely useful to understand how to use all that halakah. There is a general theme of transforming form one kind of people to another. The Israelites left Egypt with a slave mentality, one that was a continual part of their world view. Their continual complaining about things is primarily about how things are not done for them. A slave make no decisions on his own, not even what to eat or when. In some ways this is a blessing. No slave ever has to wonder where their next meal comes from. They were completely dependent on their masters for everything.
By the end of Numbers the people are far different. Able to dig their own wells without divine intervention, they are an impressive military force, capable of defeating national armies. Instead of the timid people of the beginning of Numbers, they are to be feared. The life in the wilderness forged these people over 40 years into something powerful.
This is the primarily Aggadic book of Torah, where we learn that very important lesson. God is not going to make a miracle for everything we want. God may not even answer every prayer directly. Often miracles happen because we do the right thing to make them happen. Right mind and right action is just as important as divine intervention. One can rely on magic wells, or one can pick up a shovel and start digging around a suspicious number of trees grouped together. At the end of the day, the guy with the shovel is far less likely to be thirsty.
There are many transformation stories, many of them having a journey from one place to another as their theme. In modernity, there is Tolkien’s works for one example. Ancient stories like those of Odysseus or Aneas have similar themes. The person who starts the journey is not the same who finishes. Often, they are a better person at the end than when they began. While Moses is a main character, in many ways the Israelites themselves introduced by the thousands in this portion are the protagonists. This is a story of transforming these people:it is thier journey, not Moses’. As we learn in the prophetic literature, it wasn’t a completely successful nor permanent transformation, its something that requires constant attention.
Transformations are something I think a lot about as I’m in this transition period of my life. The enthusiastic grad student I was, so saturated with information led to a vast creative output in term s of this column. Six months after I finished my classes I’m feeling as dry as that wilderness the Israelites crossed. If not for two hours every Wednesday evening I’d have nothing at all inspiring me. For the last tow months I’ve written some of the least inspired columsn ever, if I wrote at all. I’ve seriously thought of dropping this column and even dropping my kosher rules and Shabbat prohibitions. My jewishness seems to have evaporated. Spending two weeks in the land hasn’t helped. Not even standing before the Kotel seems to have helped.
Maybe the wall did help. Last week, I mentioned half of what was in that piece of paper I put in the wall, and what that experience at the wall might mean for that second half. I think much of what I prayed was not about God granting me something as much as my learning the skills and courage to do it myself. Like I said last week, it's all staring me in the face. Prayer and connection to God provides something bigger than miracles – it provides a power to realize what you want and do something about it. Things become internally driven, by one’s Nefesh not externally driven like a taskmaster. We see this so clearly in Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who saw so clearly. If the people really wanted to up into the land, it was simply a matter of doing it and believing God was there to help.
I don’t know how things will go from here. I’m going to find way to inspire myself, one way or the other. As B’midbar might be saying, inspiration comes from the inside not the outside. As we go through the journey from Sinai to Mount Nebo, let’s find out together.