These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PEP Student] Wilderness in the Desert

Posted on May 29, 2011 by Tamara Frankel

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Dear Friends,

This afternoon during my Tanach class I took a poll of students and staff asking the following questions: have you spent (significant) time in the desert? If yes, how did it feel? How would you describe your experience(s) there? The reason I took this poll is because these questions have followed me as I read the parsha.

As I sit to write this dvar Torah, I grapple with the significance of בְּמִדְבַּר (Bamidbar – often translated as desert), as the name of the parsha and this book in the Torah.

Fortunately, I was able to glean deep insight from this survey. Some students noted that the desert evokes a profound sense of solitude and silence. Other commented that the large expanse and open space of the desert awaken in people insecurity and uncertainty: after all, the day is filled with tremendous heat and lack of water and the night is mercilessly cold. And yet, somehow the barrenness of the desert, though it can be frightening, enables its inhabitants to pause and reflect.

To rectify this seemingly contradictory set of responses of how people experience the desert, I turned to an academic source to unpack the etymology of the word מִדְבַּר. According to the Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, written by Marcus Jastrow, the definition of מִדְבַּר is not limited to ‘desert’. Rather it may also allude to ‘wilderness’. My teacher, Judy Klitsner, correctly points out that the word ‘wilderness’ describes a place that does have within it vegetation and wildlife. Unlike the desert, the wilderness is neither naked or dead; it is living and in bloom.

So I wonder: how is it that the מִדְבַּר can be a place that is both barren and alive? Why is it that some associate this place with tranquility and reflection and others with anxiety and disbelief? Why is the desert rehabilitative for some and destructive for others?

I am certainly no expert on human psychology, nor do I possess a complete understanding of the psyche of the Jewish People as described in the Torah after the Exodus from Egypt. However, I would like to make the claim that the reason the biblical accounts of the Jewish People in the מִדְבַּר are so varied–some tragic and others inspiring–is heavily influenced by their worldview. The Israelites in the מִדְבַּר had the ability to determine their responses to 40 years of wandering in the desert: either one could choose to embrace the wilderness by identifying its beauty and capitalize on the opportunity to strengthen one’s faith and self of purpose in silence; or one could perceive the desert as vastly naked and focus on its difficult conditions of minimal water and extreme temperatures. The book of Bamidbar indicates the both reactions existed in the Israelite camp (although my sense is that the negative perspective was fairly dominant).

So, thinking about this parsha I am reminded of many situations in which can be dramatically transformed based on my perspective. I can decide either to see the good and the potential in trying circumstances or become blinded by my frustration and focus exclusively on the obstacles presented in my situation. I have the ability to view the future as a desert or a wilderness.

I bless us all that we will be able to see the wilderness in the desert— to grant ourselves compassion and recognize the potential for reflection and growth in challenging settings.

Shabbat Shalom,