Telephone Torah Study: The Book of Numbers!
Put on your hiking boots because we’re going into the wilderness in this week’s Torah portion, B’midbar (Num. 1:1-4:20). As is customary, this week’s Torah portion is named after a significant word in the opening verse, in this case b’midbar (in the wilderness).
B’midbar is also the Hebrew title for the common English term for this book, “Numbers.”
In this week’s URJ commentary ‘Finding Your Soul in the Wilderness Scroll,’ Rabbi Philip “Flip” Rice says wilderness moments of uncertainty and adventure help us gain perspective in tough times and afterwards reward us with a new appreciation for life:
“[I will] lead her to the wilderness . . .” (Hosea 2:16)
Few places lend themselves to personal growth as well as the wilderness. Whether you conceive of it as a desert or a forest, a mirage or an oasis, a wilderness is a place of nature and a refuge from the world. It is in the wilderness where our ancestors encountered God and where Torah, their stories, were revealed. As we count down these days toward the holiday of Shavuot, our Torah portion this week invites us to join Jews worldwide as we enter the backwoods. Called “Numbers” in English, the Hebrew title of this book of Torah, B’midbar, is translated as and takes place “In the Wilderness.” Political scientist Robert Maclver writes, “The healthy being craves an occasional wilderness, a jolt from normality, a sharpening of the edge of appetite, his own little festival of Saturnalia, a brief excursion from his way of life.”1
As summer approaches and we ready ourselves for the outdoors, consider that the wilderness, like camp, is also a school. It affords us opportunities to learn and mature. Its unique environment and landscapes teach respect for the wonders of nature and invite growth of the spirit. It was in the wilderness of Sinai that our people learned the value of each person to the community. That is where our ancestors acquired the necessary skills for survival by recognizing their mutual dependence and loyalty to one another. No longer living by the will of others, the experiences recorded by those who came before us teach us the values of freedom in creating our own destinies, the conviction in our will to survive as a people, and the importance of experience to bolster education.
Love and Fear. This would appear to be precisely what Maimonides was thinking when he offered a practical means by which one can achieve both the love and fear of God (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot, Yesodei Hatorah 2:2):
“And what is the way to love Him (God) and fear Him? When a person reflects upon His Actions and His great and wondrous creations and he sees within them His wisdom that is beyond comprehension, immediately he loves and praises and extols and is consumed with an overwhelming passion to know the Great God…
But when he thinks further about these very things themselves, immediately he trembles, stumbles backwards and is terrified, and he realizes that he is a tiny, lowly, insignificant creature standing with a puny inferior intellect before the perfect intellect…”
Torah Passage of the Week
On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, Adonai spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying… (Num. 1:1)