Bemidbar: Shaped by our daily choices we are in a dynamic state of becoming.

Politicians are fond of describing their wilderness years when, unwanted by the electorate or maybe by the new leadership of their party, they languish unlistened to and alienated on the borders of the important events until they can be brought back into the mainstream and be useful once more

This week we enter the wilderness years – the book we are beginning to read is called “Bemidbar” –“in the desert”, but the reality of the Hebrew midbar is not one of emptiness and alienation from life, quite the reverse.

 Bemidbar takes us to a place rich in meaning and profound in experience. Not a place of biding out time while the inadequate and unaspirational generation of Exodus dies out, allowing a new braver generation untainted by the experience of slavery, to emerge. But a place of construction and development, of encounter and learning, of creating a people with a shared understanding of themselves and their context, and a shared vision of who they will become. The midbar is a place of preparation, a gestational place where the forming and shaping and becoming takes place.

 To be a religious person is not an absolute finished state. To be a Jew is not a once and for all event. It is a daily set of choices about how to behave, what principles to prioritise. Just as every morning we choose to get up and to face the world and what it might bring, so we choose to express ourselves as Jews on a daily basis. Some days are better than others of course. Some days the choices are clear, other times they are a struggle. We proceed from choice to choice and the time in between is not empty time, it is the time we use to help us to proceed, to digest and process what is happening.

 Bemidbar – the wilderness years – are just that for the children of Israel. They are not able just to move from 430 years of slavery in Egypt to freedom and autonomy in the land of Israel. They need time to learn, to explore their new identity, to consider and think about and digest all the implications of building a Jewish society in its own land for the very first time.

Some are afraid and effectively paralysed, unable to make any choice at all. Some want to return to the safety of what they knew regardless of how bad it was for them. Others want a society they can control, their priorities acted upon. Some will follow for a reward of some kind. Most need time to get their heads around it.

Throughout the period in the desert, from the middle of Shemot (Exodus) to the end of Bamidbar (Numbers) we are not in empty time and space but in liminal time and space. We are between two stats of being; we are in the dynamic state of becoming. We all need such times, be they to contemplate how to cast our votes, or time to understand and respond to a life change – a new birth, a change in status be it marital or professional, a time to grieve a loss. There are any number of changes we deal with on a regular basis. We need the space between one reality and another, time to locate ourselves in the new reality and to say goodbye to the old one. Every day we make choices, to live, to do (or not) what we need to do. We don’t randomly drift through the world, whether we admit it or not we live choice filled lives.

 But to make such choices we need time, space, information, support, challenge, external and internal expectations.The bible reflects this in the midbar, in the desert, where there are all the above and more. Before we leap to decisions we may live to regret – be they political or personal, ethical professional or relational, we should inhabit the liminal space, take our time and reflect, and see ourselves not as alienated and removed but as engaged in the religious activity of the thought-full, mind-full awareness of how our lives are lived.

From MiDBaR to DVRim – the life learning of Moses in Devarim

When Moses first encountered God at the burning bush he told God ‘lo Ish Devarim anochi’ – I am not a man of words (Ex 4:10).  Yet here we are towards the end of Moses’ life with a book that begins ‘eleh hadevarim asher dibber Moshe el kol Yisrael – these are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel.’ 

What has happened to turn this man who had no confidence in his ability to speak, into one of the greatest orators?  What processes did he pass through to become a man of words?

            The word Devarim comes from a root dalet, bet, resh – davar.  So, curiously, does the word which names the previous book – Bemidbar, in the desert.  There is a connection between the word we use for ‘words’ and the word we use for ‘wilderness’ – both emanate from the same Hebrew root ‘davar’, a root which implies substance and meaning.  Bemidbar is a book about growth and chaos – it is in the wilderness, the midbar, that the Israelites rebel, that they challenge Moses and even God’s authority.  It is in the wilderness that Moses negotiates and manipulates, that he demonstrates enormous fluctuations of confidence and despair, of temper and temperament.  Moses is a tortured soul, alone and frightened, filled with anger and with insecurity, with self doubt and with some arrogance.  And it is this mixture of fury and passion, of neurosis and obsession, which eventually cause him to lose everything he holds dear.  Moses’ words in the wilderness alternate between despair and compassion, between fixation and thoughtfulness, between a hope for the future and a concern for the meaning of that future.

            By the time we come to the book of Devarim however, Moses has worked through much of his pain and has undergone a radical transformation. The Moses we see in Devarim understands that his days are numbered, and the self pity of the earlier years has given way to self awareness. As he coaches and cajoles and chastises his people, he realises that every moment and every word counts.  He has moved through the ordinary and everyday relationship of interaction and transaction and is more comfortable within his skin, and so more able to make the connections that enrich and affirm his life. In Devarim he teaches us about relationship with each other and with God that is far removed from the self based needs experienced so far.

            This week, as every year when reading Devarim, we are in the week commemorating the events of Tisha b’Av, the blackest and bleakest day of the calendar. We remember disaster and calamity in great measure, including the destruction of both Jerusalem Temples. Traditionally a day of mourning and fasting, the mourning of the Jewish world has been growing for three weeks, gaining in intensity since the 17th Tammuz and its fast. 

            The tradition of mourning attached to the calendar at this period, is one that we Reform Jews have ambivalence about, but there is still a lot we can learn from it.  The laws of mourning were instituted to help us get through the tragic and difficult experiences in our lives.  But they were also established so as to help us find the opportunity to re-examine our lives and create the time and the focus to enable us to transform everyday existence and see our lives in the perspective of relationship with God.  The mourning period is the equivalent of the Bemidbar, the wilderness and chaos through which we grow and transform ourselves from self-centredness to self-awareness.    

The period of Jewish mourning is a time when the mourner isolates themselves from society and from the clamour of the world.  It provides a time for introspection and evaluation.  By tradition much of the material and trivial pre-occupations – haircuts, new clothing, physical appearance etc are sloughed off during mourning, as are the anxieties about how we are doing in the world in terms of wealth or success, reputation or achievement.  Suddenly we are faced with an awareness of what really matters in life, and given the time to consider ourselves and our activities.  There is a tradition in some parts of the Jewish world to demonstrate our lack of interest in the external and material appearances of things by covering the mirrors, a tradition I have always found folkloristic and uncomfortable, but there is a genuine message within it – that to really experience ourselves at this time we don’t look outwards but inwards, don’t use the silver glass of a mirror but the instead look into the mirrors of our own souls.

            There is a real connection between Devarim and the mourning period that is Tisha b’Av.  We begin reading a book where Moses has taken the davar that is within the midbar and transformed it into Devarim – he has taken the chaos and anxiety and self doubt within the wilderness and transformed the self same substance into matters of weight and meaning and of importance.   Here just before the black fast of the ninth day of Av we are taking the mourning and the introspection and transforming ourselves and our lives through what we find.  It is no coincidence that next week we will begin on the haftarot of consolation which are prescribed for reading immediately after Tisha b’Av and which will lead us liturgically on to Rosh Hashanah, the time for self examination and the trigger once again for renewal and redemption.  Just as Moses was able to leave the midbar and form the Devarim, so we too should be able to travel through our own midbar, and to understand our own role in life and grow in the depth of our humanity.

            Some of us never quite leave the midbar, for it can trap us into staying there, never emerging into the Devarim, the ability to see our lives more clearly, to experience the connection with God and each other as it truly is.  Most of us fluctuate most of the time between the two realms of the everyday transaction and the life-changing connection.  We shift between the higher and lower domains of consciousness and connection, intermittently aware that there are no wasted words, that all davar can become Devarim.

            During this week the calendar commemorates a terrible series of catastrophes by creating a period of mourning.  Whatever our theology or our political orientation, it provides us with the space for reflection, for the sense of our being in the chaos and loneliness of wilderness, and gives  us a time to become conscious of ourselves, our lives, our pain.  It is an opportunity for us to begin the process of radically transforming ourselves as we begin the run-up to Rosh Hashanah.  It gives us the opportunity to make connections and to see words differently, so as to experience the holiness that is all around us.. 


Bemidbar: the richness of the wilderness

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 bImageecoming.