Parashat Bemidbar 5783

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A D’var Torah for Parashat BeMidbar
By Cantor Robin Anne Joseph (’96)

“The straight line belongs to men, the curved one to God”

                 ~ Antoni Gaudi, architect

In case we missed it, we begin this book of the Torah with a reminder: we’re BaMidbar—in the desert.

Still.

But why? What are the Israelites still doing in the desert? After one year and one month, couldn’t they make it through the desert any faster? It really shouldn’t take more than a few weeks to get from Egypt to Israel, even you are traveling on foot with hundreds of thousands of people and a lot of livestock.

But not to worry; at the beginning of Parashat BeMidbar, we seem to be at an inflection point. The Israelites must surely be thinking that their travels are coming to an end. As they ceremoniously take stock of the able-bodied men from among their tribes who will form an army to battle any peoples who might try to stop them (Numbers 1:1-4), no doubt they believe they are on the verge of entering their new land.

But we—the modern readers of this ancient text—know that the journey is young and the desert looms large. “The Desert” is not only the title of this parashah and this book of the Torah; it is a leading character in our sacred story. For most of the Torah, the desert is, all at once, our residence and our burial grounds; it lovingly feeds us and swallows us whole.

We know that the Israelites will spend a lifetime or more BaMidbar. We know that, in just a few short parashiyot they will send scouts to enter the Land, the people will fear their reports, and decide they don’t want to enter the Land after all. Fear of G*d’s wrath will compel them to go on in, anyway, only to die by G*d’s plague or be slaughtered by opposing forces. And so they end up back in the desert—BaMidbar—where they continue to struggle, where they continue to grumble, and where they then spend about 39 more years seemingly walking in circles.

I think that wandering in the desert was really the only way this scenario could have played out. The Israelites were never going to make a beeline from Egypt to the Promised Land. It was never going to be a straight shot because there is no such thing. A straight line is a construct of our own making, of human beings’ limited understanding of absolutism or, perhaps, geometry. What I want to suggest is that, actually, wandering in the desert is the whole point.

In the popular children’s game, Running Bases, the catchers stand at each base and throw a ball to each other trying to tag out the runners who run back and forth between the two distant bases where they are “safe.” The runners may only be tagged out if they are caught off a base. One could play it safe, and stay on the bases as much as possible. But running in-between the bases is where the game gets played.

The Israelites could have played it safe and stayed in Egypt. They could have made a run for the Promised Land when they first had the chance. But in-between these two places is where the “game” gets played. It is BaMidbar, in the desert, where this disparate riffraff had to stop and start, circle back around, regroup and regroup and regroup. It’s where a mixed multitude earned their redemption and experienced revelation—where they learned how to live, where they learned how to survive, and where they learned how to be a People.

My sister Allison, ז”ל, was a notorious wanderer. She could never just go straight to her destination. She would take the “scenic route.” Or absentmindedly take a wrong turn and end up—G*d knows where. When I would have occasion to be with her on some journey from Point A to Point B, only to find that in the middle of it we had somehow begun traversing through Point W, she would smile happily and say, “We’re going on an adventure.”

What an adventure the Israelites underwent. On their way from Point A to Point B, they travelled every terrain and experienced every emotion…a wild, untamed journey and anything but direct.

The 13th century Biblical commentator Hizkuni likened the wandering Israelites to roaming sheep who “do not wander in one direction but often cross areas that they had fed on earlier in the season.” (Numbers 14:33)

We humans tend to believe we are operating linearly…we have “goals” and “destinations” and “targets” and we map out lists and charts to assist us. But G*d knows not of straight lines because we learn little from them, and has made the road we travel hilly and squiggly and bumpy. On our journeys, there are detours and dead ends, maybe an ambush and often some setbacks. And sometimes, as we wander through our collective desert, we have to go over and over the same territory before we finally come to understand where we are, so that we know where it is we need to go.
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Cantor Robin Anne Joseph (’96) teaches cantillation as part of the faculty at AJR. A musician and composer, Robin’s liturgical and folk-rock compositions can be found through Transcontinental Music Publications and OySongs and sung at a synagogues world-wide. Past-president of ARC (the Association of Rabbis and Cantors), past-president of the Women Cantors’ Network, and the current president of Kol Hazzanim—the Westchester Community of Cantors, Robin has served the congregation of Temple Beth Shalom in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY for the last 42 years.