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Endearment in the Wilderness

First of all, let’s stipulate that the midbar in Sefer B'midbar, the fourth of the five Books of Moses which we have just finished reading, is not necessarily a desert.  It is, foremost, a wilderness—as Webster's Dictionary says, "a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings," which may not be on account of its aridness.  In our introduction to the theophany of the burning bush, for instance, "Moses was shepherding the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law and priest of Midian; he led the sheep into the midbar, arriving at the divine mount, at Horeb." (Exodus 3:1)  Moses would have been a pitiable shepherd (and, hence, a poor choice for a leader) had he brought his flock to pasture in a desert.  A greater likelihood is that he led them to a place that provided adequate pasturage because it was uninhabited by others and, therefore, uncontested.  Indeed, Rashi (1040-1105) comments that Moses chose the midbar "to distance himself from theft, lest they pasture in private property."

Next, let’s clarify the matter of nomenclature.  How does a book whose Hebrew title is "Wilderness" end up being called "Numbers" in English?  The answer is that the English is a translation of not the book’s current Hebrew title but its classical one: Humash ha-Pikkudim, meaning, literally, the Pentateuch book of censuses, which the Greek Septuagint rendered as "Arithmoi."  "Numbers" is not the only book of the Pentateuch to be so treated.  The English "Exodus" represents the theme of redemption that is the hallmark of Sh'mot (literally, Names).  The English "Leviticus" is related to the book’s classical name, Torat Kohanim (or Priestly Law, reflecting the fact that all priests are ipso facto Levites) rather than the modern Vayikra (He summoned).  "Deuteronomy" echoes the classical title Mishneh Torah (the Law redux—also the title of the legal corpus of Maimonides, another authorial Moses) and not the modern D'varim ("words" or "affairs").  Indeed, among the five Books, only "Genesis" is a reasonable representation of its Hebrew antecedent, B'reishit.

Now that we've cleared that up, we can better appreciate that the book of Numbers, whose reading we complete this week, begins with a census and ends with another census, with yet other—partial—censuses in between.  This proliferation of censuses throughout the book accounts for Rashi's observation on the book’s opening verse: "On account of [Israel's] endearment before [God], He enumerates them continuously."

This last observation brings us to our central theme: Israel's endearment before God, as personified in the wilderness experience.  As Jeremiah (2:2) expresses it,

Go and call out in the hearing of the [people of] Jerusalem and proclaim: Thus said the Lord, I recollect on your behalf the loving-kindness of your youth, the endearment of your betrothal; you followed after me in the wilderness, in an uncultivated land.

A cursory reading of the book of Numbers, however, does not exactly reveal any glaring acts of kindness or endearment on Israel's part.  Au contraire, in the book of Numbers we have encountered some of the most malevolent episodes in early Israelite history: the calumny of the spies, which set back the entry into the Land of Canaan by the better part of 40 years; the rebellion of Korah, which challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron and, implicitly, sought to undermine the element of divine election; the incident of the quail, representative of incessant complaints over diet; the wholesale debauchery with the Midianite women at Ba'al Pe'or; and the water-from-flint affair of mei merivah, which ended with Moses and Aaron impugning the people as "rebellious," thus excluding them from entry into the Promised Land.

While God's tolerance for Israel's stubbornness is truly remarkable and commands our appreciation, surely He does not mistake such recalcitrance for endearment?

The resolution of the seeming contradiction, as Jeremiah recognizes, lies in God's willingness to overlook Israel's iniquities because of the overwhelming importance He attaches to their essential act of leaving Egypt, whereby they crossed the chasm of qualm and misgiving to follow His emissaries, Moses and Aaron, through "the wilderness, in an uncultivated land."  The enslavement and oppression in Egypt—lasting either 210 years or 80 years, depending on whether it began immediately upon Jacob's entry into Egypt or shortly before the birth of Moses—entitled Israel to repeated reassurances, while in the wilderness, that they were anticipating their destiny rather than hastening their fate.           

Enduring reassurance was granted in the form of the tabernacle (mishkan), and the precise regulations concerning the encampment and journeying of the mishkan occupy a good deal of the book of Numbers.  Nahmanides (1194-1270), for one, draws parallels between the way the Israelites assembled around Mount Sinai for the one-time revelation of the Law and the way they were instructed to set up camp around the tabernacle for ongoing revelations in the wilderness.  Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141), in a somewhat more mystical vein, compared the centrality of the mishkan and the ark of the covenant that reposed within it to the centrality of the heart to the human body.

In fact, so central were the ark and its peregrinations to the wilderness experience that a whole book of the Pentateuch is devoted to them:

When the ark set out, Moses said: Arise, O Lord; may your enemies be scattered and may your adversaries flee before you. And when it rested, he said: O Lord, restore the myriads of Israel. (Numbers 10:35-36)

At first glance, the idea that this brief passage constitutes a book seems preposterous.  But these two verses, bracketed within a pair of inverted letters nun to signify a book, are also identified in a Talmudic passage (BT Shabbat 115 b) as "an important independent book" (sefer hashuv bifnei 'atzmo)—so important, in fact, that the Talmud further suggests that with these two verses interrupting the book of Numbers and counting as a separate book, the book of Numbers itself comprises three books, making the actual total of the Books of Moses seven rather than five!

You may have recognized these two verses as part of the synagogue liturgy that accompanies the removal of the Torah scroll from the ark and, subsequently, its return.  As we open the book of Deuteronomy, they should serve as an enduring reminder of our ancestors' loving-kindness to God and a sign for the renewal of our terms of endearment.

Moshe Sokolow is professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University.

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