Parashat B'midbar

Spiritual Lessons of the Desert

The open spaces of the wilderness can help us access inspiration.

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Love & Fear

This would appear to be precisely what Maimonides was thinking when he offered a practical means by which one can achieve both the love and fear of God (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot, Yesodei Hatorah 2:2):

 "And what is the way to love Him (God) and fear Him? When a person reflects upon His Actions and His great and wondrous creations and he sees within them His wisdom that is beyond comprehension, immediately he loves and praises and extols and is consumed with an overwhelming passion to know the Great God…

But when he thinks further about these very things themselves, immediately he trembles, stumbles backwards and is terrified, and he realizes that he is a tiny, lowly, insignificant creature standing with a puny inferior intellect before the perfect intellect…"       

Humility in the Desert

The figurative symbolism of receiving the Torah in the desert appears to parallel a number of other rabbinic themes stressing humility and self-abnegation as a prerequisite for an individual to properly understand and carry out the Commandments of God. Moses, the intermediary between God and the people when the Torah is first given, is described as (Numbers 12:3) "Anav me'od mikol ha-adam asher al penai ha-adama"--the most extremely humble individual on the face of the earth.

Not only does God's revelation to Moses take place in the desert, but God chooses to speak to this prophet from the midst of a burning bramble bush, interpreted by R. Eliezer (Exodus Rabbah 2:5): "Just as the bush is the most lowly of shrubbery in the world, so too were the Jews lowly and subjugated to Egypt." The symbol of the burning bush thereby equates Moses, the Jews, and the bush as sharing the quality of lowliness.

Even Mt. Sinai, upon which God descended and Moses ascended in order to receive the Ten Commandments and the entire corpus of Jewish law, is categorized as the lowest of mountains (Sota 5a).

Historically, the desert has been a place that has attracted visionaries and groups of individuals who felt that the materialism and corruption of urban societies prevented them from communing with God and developing their spiritual capacities.

The Torah suggests that God orchestrated the Jews' going into the desert because the atmosphere created in such desolate and lonely surroundings would be extremely conducive for the entire nation to abandon the example of their previous malevolent flesh-and-blood masters. Instead, the belittling impact of the desert would inspire them to focus upon serving humbly and selflessly the Creator of the Universe.

Following in the footsteps of those redeemed from the bondage of Egypt, we must attempt to reconnect with the open spaces of the wilderness and seek in their natural fashioning a source of awakening to the Mastery of God, to access the free inspiration of the Divine therein, and to become a little more "ownerless"--in order that we can internalize lessons and truths that were previously beyond us.

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Rabbi Jack Bieler

Rabbi Jack Bieler was appointed as Rabbi of the Kemp Mill Synagogue in 1993. He has published numerous articles on Jewish education and on issues facing Judaism today, especially concerning Modern Orthodoxy.