In older times, Numbers was called Chumash Hapekudim or the Chumash of the Countings. However, since the first significant word in the book’s first Parashah is bamidbar, this gives the book its Hebrew name and the the name of the first of ten reading portions of the book. Bamidbar is often translated in the desert, but I like to translate it in the wilderness, because it is often depicted as a place of isolation or exile but not necessarily a place void of all life. I expected to see the first person sent into isolation would be Cayin who killed his brother Abel, but the text says he was sent to Eretz nod, or an eastern land. The first person I found exiled in the wilderness was Hagar when she and Ishmael fled from Abraham’s home. This event is significant because she has an encounter with the Almighty. Hashem gives her a simple instruction and she returns to Abraham’s homestead. The Torah describes the environ of this encounter by saying, עַל-עֵין הַמַּיִם–בַּמִּדְבָּר: עַל-הָעַיִן, בְּדֶרֶךְ שׁוּר,” my way to translate that short passage is to say, in the wilderness at the waters of an oasis on the road to Shur. When again Hagar leaves Abraham’s home it’s in permanent exile. She is given water and provisions and sent to wander in the wilderness of Beer-Sheva [bamidbar Beer Sheva], and like the first, she again encounters Hashem who rpovides comfort, opens her eyes to a well, and G-d provides a promise to her son.
When the sons of Jacob are in Dotan, they are feeding their sheep. Yosef approaches and the brothers scheme to rid themselves of their troublesome brother. Reuben, the text says, saves the young man from their hand by saying, Cast him into this pit, which is in the wilderness, [again, bamidbar]. If it was a desert wasteland, the amount of food for their flocks would be sparse at best, and void of food at worst. The wilderness is also a place of robber barons and thieves as depicted in Genesis 14, where several robber kings war against others and take Lot, Abraham’s nephew, hostage — but I don’t want to concentrate on that part of the wilderness experience.
So in our text, it begins, Vayedaber Adonay el Moshe bemidbar Sinay be’Ohel Moed, or And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Wilderness in the Tent of Meeting. Why does this encounter happen in the wilderness? Numbers.R 1:7 states there is a real benefit to spending time in the wilderness! It provides a locale void of obstructions and distractions. Having departed from a life of slavery and the idolatrous practices of the Egyptians, G-d showed great care for His people by removing all these distractions, and giving us a limited number of things upon which to gaze. On the first day of the second month after the first anniversary as a free people, we had the Mishkan [the Tabernacle], we had the Mountain [Har Sinai], and we had the ever-present cloud that glowed as fire at night. These objects provided the people constant reminders of the closeness and the goodness of their G-d and Redeemer. It was at this mountain, fifty days after we left Egypt, that we heard the voice of Hashem, and we saw His presence scorch the top of the mountain. The mountain was permanently scarred from the flame as a perpetual reminder of his awesomeness.
The Rabbis teach that Torah was given by means of three things: fire, rain, and wilderness. Fire because we heard His voice from the midst of the fire on Shavuos; Rain for all who are thirty, go and grasp water, and anyone who has no money should grasp bread, break it, and eat [Isaiah 55:1]. Wilderness because it is written, And G-d spoke to Moshe in the Wilderness of Sinai [Numbers 1:1].
Another reason Hashem sent us into the wilderness is one must make him- or herself ownerless — like the desert — in order to acquire Torah. This phrase caused me some pause because it brought all sorts of ideas to mind.
Being hefker [ownerless] is not just being free from slavery. It seems to speak more to how we view ourselves. Those who are egotistical or self-serving have a very difficult time accepting correction or following the directives of anyone — including Hashem. For one to be spiritual — whether it’s Jewish in nature or not — a certain amount of self-abnegation is required. We often consider Tibetan monks as spiritual leaders who seek to reduce their affections for the world as much as possible in order to assist others in their spiritual aspirations, but the monks are not the only spiritualists to whom we can aspire.
If one does not consider the feeling or the needs of others to be at least as important as your own, you are not a spiritual person. In my opinion, the most sensitive and empathetic people make the best spiritual and political leaders; unfortunately, most of these people never aspire to positions of leadership and will quickly step down or disappear in the face of opposition. The wilderness, then, contributes to this internal realization that one is a relatively insignificant cog when compared to Creation and the universal mechanism.
The wilderness, being ownerless, provides access to anyone who chooses to enter. In like manner, Torah is free for those who would enter. No one — not even us — have the right to monopolize Torah or to charge for the knowledge within it. This doesn’t mean Torah teachers should never by paid, but it does mean that if a teacher is asked a question, an answer should be given and not sold. Imagine if you will, how the name of Hashem would be soiled [Heaven forbid] if a Rabbi insisted on payment from people who asked questions about Tanach!
If we are self-serving — especially in matters of spirituality — we find ourselves empty inside, like a boat’s mainsail in the horse latitudes. In like manner, Yeshua reminds us not to seek to be a leader or to be called Rabbi; if we seek the admiration gained from leadership or authority in order to circumvent being told what to do, we defy this restriction. Rambam, in Hilkhot Yesodei Hatorah 2:2 of his monumental work Mishneh Torah, states, And what is the way to love [G-d] 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 and is terrified, and he realizes that he is a tiny, lowly, insignificant creature standing with a puny inferior intellect before the perfect intellect…
We received Torah on a mountain in the wilderness. This is neither a figurative nor a spiritual interpretation of the text, but it does parallel rabbinic themes that stresses the prerequisite of self-abnegation and humility for us to receive, correctly interpret, and participate in the Mitzvot of Hashem. If Moshe Rabbeinu is described as, Anav me’od mikol haadam asher al penai haadama [the most humble individual on the face of the earth] and he served as our intermediary with G-d, how much more should WE be humble and escape from our self-serving tendencies. No person alive — rabbi or not — can strive to attain such a station as Moshe.
The revelation we witnessed at Shavous with the voice of Hashem pronouncing the Ten Words, and the repeated encounters between Moshe and Hashem at both Mount Sinai and at the Tent of Meeting all took place in the wilderness, which is considered the least favorable land by those who seek only profit and self-aggrandizement. Mount Sinai is called the lowliest of all mountains in b.Sotah 5a. Moshe had his first encounter in the wilderness with the burning bush. Exodus.R writes, Just as the bush is a lowly shrubbery in the world, so too were the Jews lowly and subjugated in Egypt. Exodus.R, then, effectively confirms that the bush, Moshe, and the Jewish people shared the quality of lowliness and humbleness. This comparison, then, explains the chosenness of the Jewish people and those who humbly walk with them.
The wilderness has attracted visionaries and prophets from every sect and religion. Our prophets and visionaries include but are not limited to Moshe, David, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Yochanan the Immerser, Yeshua haMashiach. All of these left materialism, corruption, and the company of crowds for isolation in order to hear that still, quiet voice and to develop their spiritual connection with Hashem. Likewise, we all need to spend a bit of time in the wilderness, away form the constant upheaval of life, in order to allow us to better focus on the one True G-d and The Way of Truth and Life what was revealed in that wilderness.