I’m about to go and spend most of the next three months in the Canadian outback. Nestled in the middle of lakes and endless fields is an oasis of Jewish community, where hundreds of Jewish children spend their summers. There’s lots of things I could tell you about this place, but there’s one thing in particular that I think enables it to create the environment it does. There’s a rule that everyone has to follow, and the rule is this, ‘the only screen is sun-screen’. In other words, when most of our campers and staff arrive, they have to give up their phones!
I know, it’s kind of a bonkers thing to ask, and yet its amazing what becomes possible when people- and especially young people whose whole social lives revolve around these tiny metal and glass dictators- are disconnected from the outside world, and have no choice but to connect instead to the people, and the natural world around them. We can get away with asking people do to something they’d never feel able to do in the city, even though it’s just as possible, because the environment enables it.
My favourite hassidic story, and probably one you’ve heard a variation of before, is that of the child of a rabbi. Raised in and around the beit midrash and steeped in Torah, this kid is primed from the earliest age to follow in the family business. Over time, their father begins to notice that his child is missing from the study house. First it is for a short time, but gradually, he sees that they are missing for hours on end. Eventually he decides to raise the issue with the child. So he asks them where they have been going, and the child replies “I go to the forest”. “why”, asks the father? “to find God” replies his son. “My child” says his father “you spend all day in the study house, and you haven’t learnt that God is the same everywhere?”. His child replies “God might be, but I am not”.
Today’s parasha, B’midbar, prompts a similar question. We have begun to read a book that is named after a place- Midbar. Midbar means literally a desert or wilderness. It’s a barren, empty place. Wide expanses, horizons that rarely change even when you walk hours towards them. And yet this is the place, not the land of Israel, where our tradition tells us that we received the Torah. It is in this place, that God speaks directly to the children of Israel. If God is the same everywhere, then why this place?
In B’midbar Rabba we read an explanation “Why [was Torah given] in the wilderness of Sinai? From this the Sages taught: Torah was given to the accompaniment of three things: fire, water, and wilderness…Why was the giving of the Torah marked by these three features? To indicate that as these are free to all in the world, so also are the words of the Torah free…Anyone who does not make herself as open as the wilderness, is not able to acquire wisdom and Torah.
As open as the wilderness. It seems this moment is asking something more of us, it’s asking us to seek within ourselves what the boy had to go to the forest for, it is asking for a kind of openness and stillness, a receptiveness. And this couldn’t be further from what we find when we look to how the Israelites acted:
At Sinai, when the Holy One gave the Torah to Israel, God manifested marvels upon marvels with God’s voice. How so? When the Holy One spoke, the voice reverberated throughout the world. At first, Israel heard the voice coming to them from the south, so they ran to the south to meet the voice there. It shifted to the north, so they ran to the north. Then it shifted to the east, so they ran to the east; but then it shifted to the west, so they ran west. Next, the voice shifted to heaven. But when they raised their eyes toward heaven, the voice seemed to rise out of the earth. Hence Israel asked one another, “But wisdom, where shall it be found? And what is the place of understanding? [Job 28:12]” (Exodus Rabbah 5:9)
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg comments on this moment:
“It’s a funny, kind of pathetic image, isn’t it? The Israelites scuttle around, running here and there and everywhere. The Israelites’ desperation is evident, and it’s pretty clear that the anxiety that they’re experiencing is serious business.
“And it feels familiar, as well. So many of us these days are in constant motion, hurtling down the street with smartphone in hand, running from work to our social lives or home lives and errands and chores and then going to bed and doing the same thing all over again. We’re in perpetual motion, running from north to east to south and back again, chasing a truth of some sort and not finding it — and, perhaps, wondering why we’re not hearing God’s voice more often than we do.
“Wisdom, where shall it be found?” Well, how about right here?
“What is the place of understanding?” How about this place?
“Would the voice have changed directions if the Israelites had determined from the outset that they would stay and hear what was to be heard in the south? The midrash tells us that God’s voice reverberates throughout the world, after all — so why are they running in circles? I wonder if, perhaps, rather than chasing after God’s voice, they might actually be running from it.
“After all, revelation is terrifying.
“What God asks of us is not always easy — in fact, it’s usually not easy.
“Once the Israelites stop running around and actually hear what it is that God has to say, they’ll be on the hook. Their lives will change drastically after they receive Torah. They’ll have to face all of the ways in which responsibility — covenant — can be uncomfortable, can push us, challenge us, force us to be accountable to the divine, to others, and to the best version of ourselves. How many distractions, pettinesses and indulging of our less admirable qualities do we have to give up to do that?
“I think the Israelites were running around because they didn’t want to hear. Like so many of us who fill our time staring at screens, multitasking, making ourselves busy, being frenetic and obsessing over things that don’t matter, the Israelites are running around numbing themselves out and then pretending that they don’t know what would help.
“Wisdom, where shall it be found?” Right here, in this present moment.
Bamidbar isnt talking just about this wilderness, and this moment of revelation. It’s talking about us, and about our ways of being.
If receiving Torah is a metaphor for connecting to the essential truth of a moment, of becoming grounded and conscious of our responsibility and what that moment in time demands of us, then Midbar is also our challenge.
It’s our challenge to seek out our own forests, our own ways of looking beyond the distractions of each moment, of being present. It might be through meditation. It might be through a walk in the park, a late evening run, through prayer, silent contemplation, or through other forms of stillness, but if we can find moments to create the stillness, the midbar and the openness it brought out in our ancestors, imagine what else we might find?