Living in the Wilderness

What are your thoughts about the lack of rain over the past few weeks? I’m not very keen on rain myself, but when you have a garden, the absence of natural water descending from the heavens during the spring time, is a considerable problem. And what about the farmers? If we don’t get a decent spell of rain, there will be real problems for the crops this year. I have to admit, an urban Jew for most of my life, I didn’t really think much about this issue until I moved out to the countryside. Now I have a big garden, and I’m very aware of the difference that rain makes.

Yes, I’m closer to nature now. But gardening and farming are not really about nature. What would the landscape of Sussex look like if people neither farmed nor gardened? It would be an undulating wilderness of wildflowers and grasses. When we moved into our house just outside the village of Bishopstone last year, we thought it would be really nice if the huge lawn at the front could be returned to down-land rather than be continuously mowed, like the manicured lawns of our neighbours either side. They, however, soon made it clear, in the politest possible way, that this would not be acceptable… Consequently, to indicate that we are prepared to co-operate with the idea of taming nature, we have created a large oval which we have left to grow wild, and mowed around it, so it looks contained… Well, to be honest, I haven’t exactly been the one doing the mowing…

And our attempt to balance a commitment to nature with good neighbourliness has continued with the creation of a ‘green’ roof on the top of the garage. The organic gardener we employed has set it up to be a down-land. Completed just a week ago, it is going to take quite a while for the seeds to grow, but when they do, it will provide an interesting counterpoint to the modernist lines of our 1930s house. Needless to say, given the issues about the front lawn, we have, of course, consulted with our next door neighbours – and made sure that it will not restrict the view of the people living closest to the roof. The experience of managing this situation has given new meaning to the injunction we find in the Book of Leviticus – namely: ‘You shall love your neighbour, as yourself’! (19:18)

As it happens, we completed the Book of Leviticus last Shabbat, which means we now turn to the Book of Numbers. The Hebrew name of this fourth book of the Torah is B’midbar because it opens with the words: Va-y’dabbeir Adonai el-Moshe b’midbar Sinai – ‘The Eternal One spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.’ B’midbar is the first distinguishing word that marks out both the book and the first portion, and that’s why both the book and the portion are named B’midbar. Interestingly, the English and Hebrew names are not just different they also express utterly contrasting aspects of the book. Significantly, the word midbar is connected to the Hebrew root, Dalet Beit Reish, to ‘speak’. A familiar noun, also based on this root, is davar, meaning ‘word’ – and also, ‘thing’: The wilderness – or, more precisely, the desert – is a barren, empty place, devoid of words and of things. So, after spending several weeks considering the rules and regulations connected with the Divine Service of the sacred Tabernacle, and the laws associated with k’dushah, holiness, we now return to the narrative of our ancestors, and their life in the wilderness following the Exodus from Egypt.

Our ancestors spent a long time living in the desert – forty years, as it turned out. No wonder they complained. No wonder they thirsted for water and longed to return to the fleshpots of Egypt! (Exodus 16:2ff. and Numbers 11:4ff.). At least slaves get fed regularly. But they were not completely abandoned to the harsh terrain. The Torah tells us about the manna from heaven, and quails, and water gushing from rocks (ibid. and Numbers 20:1ff.) – and the rabbis spoke of Miriam’s Well, which accompanied them on all their journeys, until Miriam, the eldest of the three sibling leaders, died in the fortieth year of their wanderings (Talmud Bavli Ta’anit 9a; Shabbat 35a – with Rashi’s commentary).

Yes, as anyone who is familiar with the Torah narrative knows, from the very beginning of their journey, our ancestors did not take the short route from Egypt to the land on the western side of the River Jordan (Exodus 13:17-18). They wandered, rather than journeyed, through the wilderness. Nevertheless, this is not the impression given by the opening chapters of the Book of Numbers. Here we learn that ‘on the first day of the second month, in the second year after their going out from Egypt’ (Numbers 1:1), the people were numbered and organised, tribe by tribe, family by family, and marshalled to the east, south, west, and north sides of the Tabernacle, for a march through the desert (Numbers chapter 2). Hence: the Book of Numbers.

Aware that seven is the number of completion, Martin Buber[1] identified seven correspondences between the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert, outlined in the last fifteen chapters of the Book of Exodus, and the account of the creation of the world. Noticing parallels in the language – not least, the repeated use of the Hebrew root, Ayin Sin Hei, meaning to ‘do’ or to ‘make’ – Buber’s analysis helps us to see how the human task of building a community mirrored the Divine work of creating order out of chaos (Genesis 1:1ff.). At the beginning of the fourth book of the Torah, we can identify a similar process at work: Thirteen months after leaving Egypt, the people are still in the desert. The time has come to take control, impose order despite the unruly surroundings, and set out for their destination.

Well, that was the plan, anyway … As we read the story week by week, we are reminded that it wasn’t just the landscape that remained unruly: other forces of disorder were rampant; and rebellion followed rebellion (see Numbers 12-17). In the end, after forty years of battling with the people and the elements, even Moses and Aaron lost control, and an exasperated Moses yelled at the people, overwhelmed by the death of Miriam: ‘Hear now, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?’ (Numbers 20:10).

Why do we continue reading this ancient narrative, year after year? Of course, that’s the regime: the rabbis instituted the annual Torah reading cycle 1500 years ago, organising the text into weekly portions – and we have been going round and round and round, ever since. But we are doing more than simply maintaining an ancient rite. In Pirkey Avot, the Sayings of the Sages, the collection of the wise aphorisms of the rabbis, which is appended to the Mishnah, edited around 200 CE, we read that a rabbi referred to as Ben Bag Bag, said, ‘Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it’ (PA 5:22). So, we turn the Torah again and again and we find that so much of it continues to speak to our lives. Life is a wilderness. Our task is to make order out of chaos. And yet, as the Hebrew word for life, chayyim, reminds us, life is plural; it resists our attempts to contain and control it. And it’s not just that nature is constantly defying culture. The truth is that each one of us represents a complex interaction between nature and culture that cannot be disentangled. Why is the world economy in such a mess? Is it a human failure? Is it a systems failure? But at least the economy is the work of human ingenuity. Why do human beings develop and grow, and then, begin to deteriorate, and eventually die? However sophisticated and ingenious and inventive we may be, we cannot defy the natural cycle of life. Yes, we have managed to cure some diseases that used to kill people, and we may come up with more and more cures, and we may extend life expectancy yet further, and enable people to live longer, healthier lives, but we cannot cure death. We are creatures, organisms, just like all the other creatures on planet Earth. The only difference is that we have consciousness; we can manipulate nature, and make sense of our existence, and make plans and dream – and we know we’re going to die.

At the moment, we are counting the days from the Festival of Pesach to the Festival of Shavuot – or, more precisely, from the second day of Pesach to the feast of ‘Weeks’ that falls on the 50th day, following the seven weeks of counting. After the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the rabbis transformed the priest’s daily ‘waving’ of the omer, a sheaf of grain, described in Leviticus chapter 23, into a countdown to Sinai, a journey from Liberation to Revelation. But the origins of the seven weeks of the omer lie elsewhere: the farmer sows the seeds, in the hope that the rain will come and the sun will shine, in balancing proportions, and the seeds will grow into grain. It’s as simple as that. We are nature and we are culture. We interact with the natural world and we cultivate it, and nurture new life out of it in order to nourish and sustain our lives. We are here for a span – hopefully, like the seven ‘complete’ weeks of the counting of the omer (Lev. 23:15), a complete span. But whatever our hopes, we cannot control all aspects of our lives, however hard we may try. What we can do, is recognise that we are not alone. We have neighbours and fellow travellers on the glorious odyssey we call Life, from birth to death. And more than this, like our ancestors who built the Tabernacle and organised themselves for their trek through the desert, we enhance our individual lives when we cooperate and share together – and yes, argue and disagree for the sake of our common purpose, too. All being well, and we exchange contracts on the sale of 26 Farm Road, in a short while we will begin to count down the days towards leaving the synagogue building as we have known it for so many decades, and begin the process of rebuilding it. As we do so, may we all take to heart that by participating and engaging in this great adventure together, we will not only construct the building we need for our diverse and growing congregation, we will also fashion a tabernacle and an arbour for all those in search of meaning and community in the midst of the wilderness of Life. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, 28th May 2011 / 24th Iyyar 5771,

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

[1] Martin Buber, “People Today and the Jewish Bible: From a Lecture Series,” in Scripture and Translation: Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Trans. and Ed Lawrence Rosenwald with Everett Fox (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).