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B’midbar ~ The Journey Into Faith

May 22, 2009

Okay, here goes. This week begins the book of Numbers, B’midbar, which means variously “in the wilderness” or “in the desert” which seems to get the most votes. It gets the most votes because the symbolism of the desert is critical at many junctures in the Torah. This portion begins, among other things, with the “counting” of every Jew; and this is not the first time, G-d counts the Jews all the time. One Chasidic commentary talks about the paradoxical truth contained in the counting. First, that it implies that each of us is individually important, special, and to be counted separately because we are individuals. Second, it implies the ultimate humility, that each of us is entirely equal, of exactly similar value. This is the same idea that underlies our fundamental democratic ideal, that each of us has an exactly equal voice, no more or less than any other. There are many ideas about why G-d chooses to put the Mishkan, the tent, the sacred space in the desert, and there to give the Torah. One idea is that it was given in the desert because it belongs to nobody and therefore no “place” can claim the Torah for its own, that each who seek it may find it. The one that appeals to me most today, is the idea of outside and inside. As we leave Leviticus, we leave the Mishkan, safety and plenty and begin the journey into the wilderness. The symbolism of the desert as the place to find spiritual completeness has had many commenters. I find it more interesting that the journey into the wilderness is the ultimate journey of faith. So as we leave the safer place, the tents of Jacob, the sacred spaces, what we are given to sustain us is not food, or water, or material things; it is the Torah, faith. From this grows the idea that when we do our part, whatever that is; when we do our best and can do no more, the rest is up to G-d and only faith remains. In the counting we are reminded that each of us is important, that G-d has concern for the welfare of each of us, not just the welfare of the whole. In the counting we are also reminded that G-d loves us as we are, as we were made, each of us unique and special, to be counted separately. In this way we are reminded of our relationship with the divine, our own special unique relationship. It is easy sometimes to feel the presence of the divine “inside the tent”, in our services, among our families or our friends, in whatever group gives us solace and strength. It is much harder to find the divine “outside the tent”. In this portion we know that when we are outside the tent, seemingly alone in the midst of life’s struggles and sorrows, G-d is with us, faith can sustain us and our unique life is the greatest gift. In the end it is the journey into the desert, into our faith, that enables gratitude, compassion, joy. Shabbat Shalom.

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