What is the most important book of the Torah? Is it Genesis in which the world was created and Abraham first communes with God? Is it instead Exodus when God liberates the Jewish people from Egypt and reveals the Torah on Mount Sinai? Perhaps one could argue it is Leviticus in which a myriad of ritual laws are revealed, for example the basis for Jewish prayers, as well as the all important ethical commandments, in particular “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Then again one could argue it is the concluding book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, in which the most of the commandments are elucidated and we near the realization of entering the Promised Land.
One can of course make a compelling argument for each of these books. I would like instead to entertain the idea that it is the fourth book of the Torah, Numbers, which we begin reading on this Shabbat. In this book, called in Hebrew Bamidbar—in the wilderness—we become a people. In this book we become destined to forever wander, we continue journeying from Sinai to that distant, far off promise. The book is filled with disappointments, rebellions and complaining. More than any other book Numbers speaks in a realistic tone, offering appraisals of what journeys are often made.
It is a remarkable statement about our Jewish faith that our central text contains such a book. Here is but a taste of what we are to read here: “And then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt…’” (Numbers 11) The people complain and complain. “Daddy, when are we going to get there?” Our leader Moses loses his patience as well. He screams, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you from this rock?” (Numbers 20) God becomes incensed with the people. Relationships are tested. There are moments when the journey appears to be nearing its demise.
And yet we continue to wander. The wilderness, the midbar, the desert is where we become a people. There, in wandering and challenge we are defined.
Edmond Jabes, the 20th century French Jewish author who fled his native Egypt during the 1956 Suez Crisis, writes: “With exemplary regularity the Jew chooses to set out for the desert, to go toward a renewed word that has become his origin…. A wandering word is the word of God. It has for echo the word of a wandering people. No oasis for it, no shadow, no peace. Only the immense, thirsty desert, on the book of this thirst, the devastating fire of this fire reducing all books to ashes at the threshold of the obsessive, illegible Book bequeathed to us.”
Wandering is the first, most important book that we write. Struggle and challenge is what makes us whole. It is what makes us one.
We turn again to the pages of the wilderness, of the verses of Bamidbar.