This week we begin to read the fourth book of the five books of Moses, the one whose title in English is known as ‘Numbers’ because of the censuses which take place within it, but which in Hebrew is ‘Bemidbar – in the wilderness’.
It is in the wilderness that most of the story told in the scroll is set. It is in the wilderness that most of the people meet God. It is in the wilderness that Revelation takes place – in ownerless and structureless land. The midrash tells us that wilderness is a necessary condition for every revelation: “Whoever would wish to acquire Torah must make themself ownerless like the wilderness”(Bemidbar Rabbah). In other words it is important to be able to cast off the set ways of thinking, to free oneself from the patterns and rat runs of our usual thought processes, and open ourselves up to the new world, new directions and also maybe even to an apparent lack of direction.
The midbar, the wilderness of ownerless land, is the space that exists in both place and time in which we too can search for revelation. Unlike the more frequent use of the image as being dry, arid and hostile to life, the midbar is a place full of potential, where anything can and does happen. Far from being deadening and moribund, it is a challenging place, complex and spacious, with freedom to explore in any direction. Midbar is a place of preparation and encounter, the niggle on the tip of our tongue and the nagging sense of connection we can’t always quite identify that hands on the edge of our consciousness. It is the meeting point with the unknown, the place of encounter with the divine.
We all live within a web of socially conditioned thinking and perceiving. We learn to see the world just like everyone else sees the world, to understand what is going on around us according to a limiting set of rules and agreed vocabulary. It is a rare human being who is able to rise above the received wisdom of the surrounding community, and to shift the perspective, to see the world with fresh and untutored eyes. But the wilderness provides the space and the impetus to enable us to see the world differently. It subverts the settled society and reminds us again and again that we have merely made one choice from among an infinite number of choices, that we have been influenced by the surroundings in which we live, the other people and cultures and philosophies we encounter, yet it is always possible to strip away those influences, and find the core of our human existence, the spark that animates our humanity. One just has to go into the space, to create the midbar, the place of freedom and possibilities.
It sounds simple, to strip away all the outside influences which have formed our thought and our behaviour. It sounds simple, and of course it isn’t.
But it is possible.
The mechanisms we use in the Jewish tradition are found within the revelation given in the desert – the mechanisms of mitzvot and of prayer. We create a structure of behaviour – the mitzvot are purely a way of behaving (almost without thinking about it), in an ethical and socially enabling way. The fact that tradition sees them as coming directly from God, the commander or Metzaveh, gives them a weight of authority and validity, but of course one doesn’t have to believe in God to do the mitzvot – rather the mitzvot may have the effect of leading to a belief in God. Meanwhile one behaves appropriately.
Prayer on the other hand is a way of reaching out to God as an individual, and to do it one has to try to create the space, the wilderness, in which one is ownerless. Influenceless, standing alone before God has the effect of de-socialising us. When we pray we are releasing our consciousness of our own behaviour, not thinking about other people or how we are relating to them, or of ourselves and how we look in the eyes of those around us.
In prayer we break the norms of social behaviour. We step outside the civilising influences of our society, We use language in a different way, we may speak in complete silence, or sing or move about or listen to someone or something else. We may move our lips with no sound, or shout out loud – there are no rules, that is the main rule of prayer. Only a sincere striving, a creating of space which we can then occupy without anyone else but God. It doesn’t really matter how we create the space, as long as we do.
The midrash teaches “whoever would wish to acquire Torah must first make themselves ownerless like the wilderness” It doesn’t mean that we must remove ourselves from all the civilizing influences upon us, or from our responsibilities to each other, but that we should be aware of them and be able to release ourselves from what controls us and stifles us so we can encounter and become, rather than close ourselves down and starve our being and becoming.