On the Weekly Torah Portion of Bamidbar
This week’s Torah portion, bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20), is the first Torah reading in a book of the same name (referred to in English as Numbers). The word bamidbar (במדבר) means “In the wilderness”.
Wilderness is the backdrop of most of the Torah. It is where all the drama of the people of Israel as a people, as opposed to a family, takes place. And it unfolds in the space of 40 years, after which, supposedly, our forefathers crossed the Jordan river and entered the Promised Land.
But have we really left the wilderness? Have we really entered the Promised Land?
Think about it. For thousands of years, every Simchat Torah we start reading the Torah from the beginning, from the Torah portion of Bereshit. And after fifty weeks or so, towards the end of the cycle, we read the last chapter of the Torah, Deuteronomy 34, in which we find a powerful image: Moses goes up to mount Nevo, from which he has a view of the land of Canaan, and, Y-H-V-H tells him:
זֹאת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב לֵאמֹר לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה הֶרְאִיתִיךָ בְעֵינֶיךָ וְשָׁמָּה לֹא תַעֲבֹר:“This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will assign it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.” (Deuteronomy 34:4).
Moses passes away, the Torah ends, and we start from the beginning. The entry into the land of Canaan, which is described in the book of Joshua, is not part of Jewish life cycle.
Notice also that God is not referred to in the Torah as “the God who took you into the land of Canaan.” He is only referred to as the one who took the people of Israel out of Egypt. As, for example, in the first of the Ten Commandments:
אָנֹכִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים.I, Y-H-V-H, am your god who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. (Exodus 20:2)
The Promised Land is spoken of as something to prepare for, something that will happen in the future. In the book of Deuteronomy Moses repeatedly uses the expression-
…עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.…the land that you are to possess upon crossing the Jordan. (Deuteronomy 32:47).
We are out of Egypt; getting into Canaan is something that is going to happen in the future; so where are we now? In the wilderness.
What is this condition, that we call it “the wilderness?” We are no longer in mitzrayim (מצרים), a word which means Egypt but literally means duality of boundaries. And you are not yet in Canaan, the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land of heaven on earth, although you long for it, you yearn for it, you are oriented towards it, you are informed by it, you move towards it.
You can never really get there. We are told that the people of Israel had to stay in the desert for 40 years until the last person who was a grown up when they had left Egypt—the last person who still had slavery to programmed in them—dies out. Only those who were one-pointedly and wholly to freedom and to the One, who had no trace of duality in them, were fit to cross into the Holy Land. May I suggest, that we are still waiting for those people to arise.
The human condition is not perfect. Perfect saints exist in Renaissance paintings. We all have the devil in us as well. That is what makes it interesting: because even though are bodies are firmly rooted on earth, our consciousness is grounded in Heaven and we can abide in that heaven right now. But we cannot deny duality, we cannot deny our body, we cannot deny those aspects of our lives that constantly pull us towards mitzrayim, towards the duality of boundaries.
So we are here in this in-between land, the land of bamidbar. This is where our unique drama unfolds. We were given an awesome task: the partake in the task of the creator, of moving creation towards more and more consciousness, towards higher and higher order. And how do we do that? As God tells Cain:
לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ וְאֵלֶיךָ תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ וְאַתָּה תִּמְשָׁל בּוֹ:Sin couches at the door; his urge is toward you, yet you can be the master. (Genesis 4:7)
You still have Egypt in you, it still exerts its pull, but you can make a choice. And that choice has cosmic implication, it is the most direct way towards tikkun ‘olam, towards the repair of the world. This is our task here on earth.
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But does it make sense to aspire towards an elusive Holy Land which one can never reach? I’d like to bring one modern answer to this conundrum, that of the great French scientist, philosopher, theologian and educator, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). He conceived of the idea of the Omega Point. Omega, of course, is that last letter in the Greek alphabet, which is why Jesus says in the Book of Revelation: “I am the alpha and the omega, the First and the Last.” (Revelation 22:13)
In Teilhard de Chardin’s theory of evolution, the universe perpetually evolves towards higher levels of material complexity and consciousness, starting from simple inanimate matter and culminating, thus far, in us, humans (emphasis on “thus far”). The Omega Point was for him the ultimate point of complexity and consciousness which acts as an attractor, as a point that the universe constantly evolves towards. It is both transcendent and real, and acts as an imperative—everything must evolve towards it, it cannot be undone, and its very existence exerts an irresistible pull on the whole physical matter.
I propose that the same is true of the idea of the Holy Land, the Promised Land. That land does not exist in time and space. The world we live in, the physical world, is the world of the wilderness. The Promised Land, a very real but transcendent concept, is something we can see, we can aspire for, but cannot cross towards. Yet its existence has had a transformative cohesive influence on the Jewish people for thousands of years.
So yes, we are still bamidbar, in the wilderness, in the desert. And that is the good news. Because in choosing to align ourselves with the move towards the Promised Land and away from mitzrayim, away from bondage, we are co-creators of a better world. This is Tikkun Olam at its best. And from a certain perspective, that is what we came here to do.