Parashat Bamidbar (5780 – 2020)
Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
The fourth book of the Torah begins by setting the location of God’s communication with Moses. It states that “The Eternal spoke to Moses in the desert of (b’midbar) Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting…” (Num. 1:1) The Tent of Meeting is the very same place in which God has been speaking to Moses for months. The first verse of the third book of the Torah begins: “And God called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.” (Lev. 1:1) The conclusion of the Leviticus tells us that the Tent of Meeting was at the foot of Mount Sinai. But the opening verse of Bamidbar changes the name of the location of the Tent from being t Mount Sinai to being in the wilderness of Sinai.
The name of the location has changed but the location has not changed at all. Or has it changed?
God’s message in this new speech to Moses is that it is time to pack up and move on. Right now, the Tent of Meeting is situated at the base of Mount Sinai. But that placement will soon change. The people will decamp and start their trek toward the Promised Land. But there will be a transition from leaving the Mountain to arriving at the Land. Knowing this, Moses does not hear God speaking from the Mountain anymore, even though the Tent has not yet moved from there. Moses hears God from that place of transition, and that space of transition is called a wilderness.
As we continue, today, to maintain our places in our homes, we nevertheless sense that we will be moving on soon. So, even though we have not gotten the go-ahead signal yet, our consciousness is already detached from our assigned location. Nevertheless, we need to remind ourselves that leaving the Mountain does not mean immediate arrival in the Promised Land. There is no way to avoid the wilderness transition.
A wilderness can be frightening and threatening. Navigating it requires great caution and care. God’s instruction is that we can only move forward with a strong sense of connection as a community, whose solidarity will give us strength to overcome both external challenges and internal enemies that we create for ourselves out of our fear.
But a wilderness need not be a space of fear alone. A wilderness is an open space, full of unknown possibilities. If we are able to remind ourselves that not all those possibilities are dangerous, we may become able to encounter new discoveries and be enriched by new vistas. Moses is still standing within the Tent, at Mount Sinai. But, as he hears God’s words, he is already in the wilderness. We have not yet moved forward from our assigned stations and we are not yet at our desired destination. Rather, our minds place us in the wilderness. Will it be a wilderness of fear or of possibility?
Rabbi David Greenstein
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image: collage of commercial stock images by John Lasiter
Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein