If your religion is based on a sacred scripture it is very important to have some basic knowledge of its language. This is especially true for Hindus (Sanskrit), Jews (Hebrew) and Muslims (Arabic). For example, the forth book of the five Books of the Torah is named in English the Book of Numbers because it open with a census of the 12 tribes who are descendants of Jacob/Israel. This teaches us that every tribe, every clan, every extended family and every individual person is important to God.
But the Hebrew name of the book “B’midbar,” meaning “in the wilderness” comes from the first line of the book, where we learn that God spoke to Moses b’midbar Sinai, in the wilderness of Sinai. Now scary things can happen in a wilderness, (which will be related throughout the Book of B’midbar) but it’s also a place rich with open possibilities. It is, after all, the place where we Jews received the Torah.
This is well expressed by Sarah Goldstein Szanton, the daughter of Rabbi Jerry Goldstein, a long time friend of mine, who wrote this introduction to the weekly Torah reading at her synagogue’s Shabbat service.
In the Reform movement’s Women’s Torah Commentary, Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi made me realize the value of both titles given to this fourth book of the Torah: Numbers and B’midbar. Rabbi Eskenzai points to the contrast between the two titles which she sees as “a tension between order and chaos, culture and nature, obedience and rebellion that characterizes the book and drives its plot.” Some things in the book are clearly prescribed, for example the arrangement of the tribes in their encampment, the specific roles given to the sons of Aaron, and the other roles given to the Levites.
But other aspects of the book are less predictable and awe-inspiring. As Friedman points out, the book of Numbers portrays “the only age in the Bible in which miracle is a daily fact of life.”
Thinking about both counting and wilderness experiences calls to mind what might be my own Book of Numbers. Nathan and I moved to Maine 36 years ago this summer. It’s been not quite the 40 years of the Israelites’ wilderness experience, but close, and significant in another Jewish way for being two times 18.
It was the summer of 1987. Nathan was 26 and I was 23. Since then we’ve lived in four different homes, earned two graduate degrees, and held more than a dozen jobs between us. Our family has expanded to two sons, two daughters-in-law, two sets of mechutanim (the parents of our daughters-in-law), three sisters-in-law, eight nieces and nephews, and three grandchildren. Our four parents have lived to their mid-80s and one passed away when he was almost 90. Those are some of the Numbers.
But it’s also been a wilderness at times. In our early years we were trying to start new careers, tend to a new marriage, and build a new community for ourselves, all at the same time. We were far away from family. Our kids had to get on an airplane to visit their grandparents. They also didn’t have the easily accessible Jewish community that I grew up with in Los Angeles.
In elementary school, during the week of Passover, they were usually the only ones who couldn’t eat the pizza on Pizza Lunch Day. Finding friends, forming adult identities, and establishing a home were often hard. As they say, “You can’t get there from here.” Or maybe you just can’t get there quickly or easily.
In the Book of Numbers, the Torah is ultimately what holds our people together through the forty years of wandering through to their emergence in the Promised Land. In Nathan and my story, Jewish learning, growth and community have been just about the only constants in our 36 years here.
Through the twists and turns, victories and defeats, gains and losses, we’ve survived our wilderness by holding onto our place within the Jewish people. That connection has helped us count our blessings and to look forward to the possibilities ahead.