This week’s portion begins the fourth book of the Torah, Numbers. The English name comes from the Greek and Latin translations and has to do with what occurs in the opening chapters. The first chapter begins with a census, with a counting of the Israelites. The Hebrew name in contrast comes from one of the first words, Bamidbar and means “in the wilderness.”
According to the accompanying Haftarah, Hosea, wilderness has both a positive and negative meaning. It can be the place where we hunger for food, and seek to quench our thirst. It can mean the desert. It is also the place where two lovers can be alone, where God and Israel can be joined. The prophet Hosea uses both of these images.
Hosea first chastises the Israelites, accusing them of disavowing their relationship with God. “Else will I strip her naked/And leave her as on the day she was born:/And I will make her like a wilderness,/Render her like desert land,/And let her die of thirst.” (Hosea 2:5) Later, the prophet offers a promise of redemption. “Assuredly,/I will speak coaxingly to her/And lead her through the wilderness/And speak to her tenderly./I will give her vineyards from there,/And the Valley of Achor as a plow land of hope…” (Hosea 2:16)
The wilderness can be a place of thirst, of wanting. It can also be a place of renewal and hope. There we can struggle for survival. In the wilderness we can as well discover our destiny.
The book’s English name suggests nothing of this dual meaning. It suggests nothing of the importance of this place, of the significance of the wilderness. But it is in the wilderness that we find meaning. Place is open for interpretation. There, in the wilderness, we can see little water, or the miraculous wells that sustained the people Israel. There we can see the desert’s daytime sweltering heat and its evening chilly air, or the Torah we received on Mount Sinai and the bonds of community strengthened by our journey.
This wilderness that might be called in English a God-forsaken land is transformed by our tradition into a place of promise and hope. It is a place where the unexpected and miraculous occurs. Why was the Torah given in the wilderness?, the rabbis ask. It is because this place belongs to no one. A midbar is by definition not part of any state, it is within no country’s borders. Therefore the Torah belongs to everyone.
The question remains. When we venture into the wilderness of our lives, will we see the miracles that continue to dot our landscape, or will we only see the mountains’ harshness? Will we see that there is so little water or instead the promise that we can be alone with those closest to us? Any place is what we make of it. Will we see the wilderness as a place of distance or a place of nearness?
The prophet reminds us, it is often such a distant place that can bring us closer to our God.