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B'midbar 2023

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

I grew up in Oakland, NJ, a small town in the northern part of the state. We lived on a dead end – Hannah Road. The street that inter­sected with ours – Page Drive – was also a dead end to the south. Beyond the dead end on Page Drive were some woods. If you walked into the woods and up a hill, you reached the sand dunes. A local family who owned most of the land in our town and the neighboring town also owned the dunes. They remained undeveloped until the late 1970s, around the time I graduated from high school.

Before their development, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, my older brother walked his mini-bike down Page Drive into the woods, ride up the hill, and then spend hours riding in the sand dunes. I often would go with him. Once we reached the dunes and he’d drive around, I’d lay down on my back, simply enjoying the wide-open expanse of sand and sky. The air was fresh, as we lived far enough from New York City that I grew up never really knowing air pollution. And the sand reminded me of a great desert where people would traverse for days on end looking for something. They usually sought water or food. I, on the other hand, was looking for myself. Or God. Or both. I was really not sure.

A few years later, my brother had sold his mini-bike and signs were coming that the dunes would be developed. So I needed a new place for my searching. In the town to our north, the county opened a park called the Ramapo Reservation. I would get up many a weekend morning, hop onto my bike, and head over to the Reservation. I’d sit by a stream in the woods for hours writing bad poetry. Most people ignore the stream, preferring Snake Lake at the top of the hill. So I usually had the place to myself. It was the opposite of the sand dunes – woodsy with water – and yet served for me the same purpose: To be utterly alone in my thoughts as I sought myself and God – and this time I knew I was seeking both.

I am reminded of these two pivotal times in my life as we begin reading from a new book of Torah. Numbers is its name in English, as the opening story includes extensive texts on taking a census and counting how many Israelite men are available to create an army. But the book’s name in Hebrew is very different, B’midbar, in midbar.

Midbar is one of those unusual words in Hebrew. Sometimes it’s translated as desert and sometimes it’s translated as wilderness. So B’midbar, the new book and our portion this week, means simultaneously being in the desert – or the sand dunes, and being the wilderness – a wild, uninhabited, and uncultivated place such as the woods with the stream.

For many people, being b’midbar, either in a desert or in wilder­ness, is frightening. The Israelites certainly faced their challenges: sometimes lacking water or food; occasionally meeting enemies who would not let them pass through inhabited places and forcing them to remain b’midbar; and, as we will discover as we read the book of Numbers, confronting or participating in revolt after revolt against the leadership of Moses. In that state of vulnerability and fear, the Israelites were often at their worst.

I get it. And yet, for me, being in midbar was the exact opposite. It was exhilarating. It gave me the space to begin my journey of self-discovery, even at the young age of nine. And God didn’t judge me. At the stream in the woods, I could express my angst about not fitting in and wondering why no college seemed like the right place for me. And God tried to guide me. I talked to God a lot in both places. The Israelites, on the other hand, use b’midbar to challenge God.

I have often wondered why b’midbar is not a place for many to fear. Perhaps it relates to our next holiday – Shavuot – when we celebrate standing at Sinai to receive Torah. My friend and colleague Rabbi Michael Latz once wrote, “Torah is revealed to us in moments of quiet and in places that are beautiful.

God’s majesty can infuse the spirit with hope in the mountains and in the beauty of nature.” Maybe that was it. Each time we visit a sand dune or a stream in the woods, God’s majesty infuses our spirit with hope.

So what happened to the Israelites? The moment of revelation at Sinai was filled with awe and wonder and God and majesty. But now it is several years later and the Israelites are in the same place. Since their arrival at Mount Sinai back in the book of Exodus, the Israelites haven’t moved. The entire book of Leviticus takes place while the Israelites remain at Mount Sinai. When the Israelites first arrived at Sinai, it was a new experience. But the further away they got from their original encounter with God at the mountain, the more they lost, leaving them vulnerable and afraid.

It need not be this way. The challenge for us all is to know that when we are so distant from where we began, we can’t return to the old, but rather we must embrace and reframe the new. That’s what the great Hassidic masters of the 18th century teach us in this story.

The Baal Shem-Tov lived in Poland. Whenever the rabbi became aware that tragedy was about to strike the Jewish people (as often happened in Poland in the 18thcentury), he would go to a certain place in the forest – b’midbar – light a fire, and say a very special prayer. And always it would happen that the impending tragedy would somehow be avoided.

When the Baal Shem-Tov was no longer walking the earth, his disciple, the Magid of Mezritch, would go into the forest on behalf of his people. Going to the same place the Baal Shem-Tov had once gone, he would cry to God, “Please listen to me! I don’t know how to light the fire, but I know the right words to pray. Let this be enough.” And always it would happen that the impending tragedy would be avoided.

Then it was the turn of the Magid’s disciple, Moshe-Leib of Sasov, to save the Jews. He went into the forest and prayed, “O God, please listen to me! I don’t know how to light the fire, and I don’t know the words to pray. But I know this place. Let this be enough.” And always it would happen that the impending tragedy would be avoided.

Finally, responsibility for protecting the Jews fell on Israel of Rizhyn. He prayed to God at the edge of the woods, eyes closed. He said, “Please listen to me! I don’t know the place in the woods. I’m unable to light the fire. I don’t know the words to pray. But I can tell the story. Let this be enough.” And it was enough.

On this Shabbat, I pray that we each approach the midbar able to reframe the story so that we draw near to what is Divine and sacred rather than turn away because of our fears and vulnerabilities.

Shabbat shalom.

Sun, April 21 2024 13 Nisan 5784