This week’s portion begins the fourth book of the Torah, Numbers. In Hebrew the portion and book are called, Bamidbar—in the wilderness, specifically in the wilderness of Sinai.
Isn’t it remarkable that nearly the entire Torah, from leaving Egypt in the beginning of Exodus to Moses’ death in the closing of Deuteronomy, occurs in this non-descript place, the wilderness? The most significant events in our early history occur in the midbar, wilderness. The Torah, our most treasured possession, is revealed not in some sacred precinct that we visit in yearly pilgrimages but instead on a mountain that has yet to be discovered. We know only that Mount Sinai is a mountain somewhere in the vast expanse of the Sinai desert. Our faith was born, and God revealed, in a deserted wilderness.
We spend a good deal of our lives building, decorating, painting and landscaping our homes as if they were our sacred towers, as if they contain revelation, as if they are where the most important truths are discovered. In fact this week’s Torah portion reminds us that revelation and truth are not to be found in homes or destinations but in the wilderness.
Our question for this week is: where is revelation best uncovered, where is truth discovered? According to this week’s Torah portion it is not where you would expect, but instead in a vast wilderness. Truth is uncovered while wandering through the wilderness. The root of the Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, comes from davar, to speak. Words, and teachings, are uncovered in the midbar. We build our homes, expectantly, hoping that this is where truth will be revealed. In fact our greatest lessons are often in the most unexpected places. And this is the most important lesson found in the wilderness, bamidbar.
I am very practical when it comes to buildings. Homes are about comfort and security. I don’t mean to discount aesthetics. It has its value. A blooming garden can change a mood. A beautiful sculpture can brighten an entrance. But the fundamental meaning of our tradition is that we are never at home. We are always wandering. We are always in the wilderness. And it is in the wilderness where truth is discovered.
It is the unexpected places that offer the greatest lessons in our lives.