The Yeshiva of Hard Knocks
BaMidbar (“In the Wilderness”) Numbers 1:1-4:20
The Torah portion for this Shabbat is BaMidbar, meaning “In the Wilderness”. It marks the beginning of the book of Numbers. As many of you know, the Hebrew names for the books of the Torah are derived from the key word in the opening sentence of each book. This one is called Sefer BaMidbar because it begins with these words: Adonai spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai…
Numbers is not exactly a cheerful read. It shows our people Israel at our very worst, consisting of a series of rebellions against God and against Moses. One of the things that separate histories from mythologies is the honesty of an account. Legend and mythology almost always present their heroes as flawless, and exaggerate their exploits and the numbers.
So how did it get the English name Numbers? It’s because God commanded Moses to take a census, tribe by tribe, of all men, twenty years of age and older, for the purposes of military readiness, as well as to take a census of the Kohanim and Leviim. This is what occupies chapters one and two. That verb to sum (add up) is, in Greek, ???????-number; Hence, Numbers. They came up with an impressive total: 603,550 men fit for war. We also learn in this passage that the Levites were exempted from military service, as God set them apart to serve in the Tabernacle and at the Tent of Meeting.
Speaking of numbers, it is sadly ironic that out of those 603,550 men, only 2 – Joshua and Caleb, would ever be allowed to enter the Landof Canaan. That generation of unbelievers was destined to die in the wilderness. And why were we in the wilderness? After all, the book of Deuteronomy opens by saying that it was only 11 days’ journey from Horeb (Sinai) to Kadesh Barnea – the gateway to the Land of Promise. So why do we read in the very next verse of Deuteronomy 1 that forty years later we were still out there wandering bamidbar (in the wilderness)? Were our people the forerunners of the guy who adamantly refuses to stop and ask for directions? In one sense, the answer is yes! When we decided to do things our own way; when we took it upon ourselves to re-interpret God’s instructions, that arrogance and stubbornness consigned a generation to dwell Bamidbar.
The Midbar, the wilderness, is not only an identifiable geographic location, but serves as a motif, a symbol of what it means to rebel against God. When we attempt to circumvent His teaching and instruction, that’s precisely where we’ll find ourselves: in a desolate place. But the Midbar can also teach us something positive and necessary – it serves as a picture of complete and total reliance upon God. You don’t really think we survived those forty years in a scorching desert through our great ingenuity, do you? No, it was because God Himself met our needs. He provided water from a rock, manna from heaven, and quail from out of nowhere!
The Midbar, the wilderness, can also teach us what it means to repent; to admit failure, to learn from it and then to press on. It also teaches us about God’s heart of forgiveness and His desire to reconcile us to Himself. The Haftarah reading which corresponds to BaMidbar is Hoshea, chapter 2. After indicting Israelfor her disloyalty, her spiritual adultery, God speaks tenderly to Israel, with the idea of wooing her back to Himself in repentance, with these words:
Therefore, behold, I will allure her, bring her back into the wilderness, and speak kindly to her. Then I will give her vineyards from there, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. And she will sing there as in the days of her youth, as in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.
I believe the lesson of the Midbar is that God leaves open wide the doors to repentance. God was, and is, summoning men and women who find themselves in the midst a wildernesses of their own making, to return to Him and be healed. For our Jewish people today, that repentance consists of softening our hearts, and recognizing that Messiah has come – Yeshua of Nazareth. Until such time, our people will remain b’midbar – in a spiritual wilderness, outside the blessings and outside the Promise.
It’s always less painful to learn from others’ mistakes than to have to learn first-hand. We are expected to learn from Israel’s failures in the wilderness. This is why the Psalmist warned, Today if you would hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers tested Me … For forty years I loathed that generation and said they are a people who err in their heart, and they do not know My ways. Therefore I swore in My anger, truly they shall not enter into My rest (Psalm 95:8-11).
Similarly, the Great Emissary Paul warned the believers in Corinth: For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea;2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea;3 and all ate the same spiritual food;4 and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Messiah.5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness…Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Corinthians 10:1-5, 11).
Failure is a normal part of the human experience. But failure is compounded by sadness when we don’t learn from it. Have you failed in some area of your own life, spiritually or morally? Will you learn from it? If so, you will have been bettered by it. Thomas Edison failed literally thousands of times in his pursuit to develop the light bulb; He welcomed each failure as a means by which to refine the process in order to eventually arrive at success. The writer of Proverbs assures us …for though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again (Proverbs 24:16). Let me encourage you not to give up when you fail. With God’s help get up, turn and press on. Learn from Israel’s failure, so you yourself don’t end up in the wilderness of an unteachable heart.