Mi at – “Who are you?” (Ruth 3:9) – So asked Boaz. It is a question that every human being asks from time to time. Especially on this weekend of Shavuot, of the great meeting between Israel and God on the mountain, we ask ourselves individually and as a community – “Who am I/Who are we” in this time and place, at this stage of our lives, as individuals, as a people, and as a nation.
This Shabbat we begin the fourth book of the five books of Moses, Bemidbar (Numbers; lit. “in the wilderness”). If the Book of Genesis is about human and tribal origins and beginnings (mirroring childhood), and Exodus is about human freedom (representing the driving force amongst adolescents), and Leviticus is about the need to adjust to the rules and regulations imposed on society in order to live productively (characteristic of young adulthood), then Bemidbar is about the mid-life journey.
In this fourth book we see that the bloom is off the marriage between God and Israel. Doubt, disillusionment and struggle define our people’s lives. We rebel. Our faith is broken. We want to be somewhere else, anywhere else if it brings relief and renewal. We confront our limitations and mortality. We wonder if this is all there is. We’re caught in the unfettered and cruel desert, a vast wilderness of silence. Our hearts pound. The quiet thunders in our ears. We’re alone and afraid. We yearn for safety and solace.
The wilderness of Sinai is far more than a physical location. Bemidbar is a human wasteland, where everything falls apart. We wander, without a shared vision, without shared values, or shared words. Leaders of every kind attempt to lead, but no one is listening and each is marching to the sound of his/her own drummer. Driven by fear and jealousy, ego and greed, the people are moved by basic things; hunger, thirst and lust. God’s transcendence is elusive. The book is noisy, frustrating and painful.
Rabbi Eddie Feinstein has written (“The Wilderness Speaks”, The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary, pps. 202-203):
“Bemidbar may be the world’s strongest counterrevolutionary tract. It is a rebuke to all those who believe in the one cataclysmic event that will forever free humans from their chains. It is a response to those who foresee that out of the apocalypse of political or economic revolution will emerge the New Man, or the New American, or the New Jew. Here is the very people who stood in the very presence of God at Sinai…who heard Truth from the mouth of God…and still, they are unchanged, unrepentant, chained to their fears. The dream is beyond them. God offers them freedom, and they clamor for meat…”
L’havdil – I am not Moses, nor has my experience been his remotely, yet as a congregational rabbi I understand our greatest leader’s burden of leadership. In the course of Bemidbar “everyone in [Moses’] life will betray him. Miriam and Aaron – his family members – betray him, murmuring against him. His tribe rebels against him… his people betray him in the incident of the ten spies… and finally, even God betrays him [when he hit the rock and lost his dream of ever entering the Promised Land].” (Ibid)
Numbers is a book about burdens, not blessings.
“Everyone has found himself in that excruciating moment when words don’t work – when we try and say the right thing, to heal and to help, but each word brings more hurt. Everyone has tasted the bitterness of betrayal – when no one stands with us, when those who should know better stand against us. Everyone has felt the deep disappointment of the dream turned sour. It could have been so good! I should have turned out so differently! Where did I go wrong? Everyone has tortured himself with the torment Moses feels in Bemidbar. And that’s the ultimate lesson. Listen to the Torah’s wisdom: the agony, the self-doubt, the frustration are part of the journey through the wilderness. Anyone who has ever worn Moses’ shoes or carried his staff – knows the anguish of Bemidbar. But know this, too: You’re not alone. You’re not the first. You’re not singled out. And most of all, you’re not finished. The torturous route through the wilderness does not come to an end. There was hope for Moses. There is hope for us.” (Ibid)
Where does hope come? In the turning of the heart, the turning of a page, the discovery of shared values and shared purpose, of shared life, and shared listening, and shared doing. In Deuteronomy, the fifth and last of the five books of Moses (representing our senior years when we begin to integrate who we are and rediscover our greater purpose), we’ll hear Sh’ma Yisrael – Listen O Israel.
In Devarim (Deuteronomy), “words” return and we’re able to share as a people in listening to God’s voice and to each other. In this, there is hope yet to come.