The fourth book of the Torah, known in English as the book of Numbers, in Hebrew is known as Bemidbar which means, “In the Wilderness [of Sinai].”

On a psychological level, “wandering in the desert” can represent a state in which we have become unmoored from our lives and are living in a state of uncertainty, whether through a positive choice to free ourselves from the constraints of the past, or whether we are thrust into a new state through circumstances beyond our control.

I haveCathedral Rock, Arizona, Rabbi Alicia Magal heard several Torah teachers, most notably Professor Lawrence Hoffman, compare the five books of the Torah to phases in our lives. Genesis/Bereshit, with its focus on origins, represents our childhood. Exodus/Shemot, with its theme of independence and freedom, corresponds to adolescence. Leviticus/Vayikra, centered on rules, represents adulthood. . .skipping ahead to Deuteronomy/Devarim, there is an obvious parallel to old age, because the book consists of speeches give by Moses as he looks back on the past forty years.



That leaves the fourth book of the Torah, the book of Numbers, BeMidbar, the desert book, as the “midlife crisis” of the Torah. The book starts out by describing a scene of order and organization in the Israelite camp. But soon chaos breaks loose as the people of Israel engage in rebellions against Moses, and bizarre things happen, like donkeys talking or the earth opening up to swallow people. (Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan calls this “magical realism” of the Bible.) Bemidbar describes a long time of wandering when life seems crazy and unstructured, when the promised land seems unattainable.

On a societal level (whether an organization or our larger society), sometimes we feel that we are living in times of hope and progress, while at other times it seems that our community (or our society) has lost its way and is floundering, unable to find our direction and either lacking in leadership or undermining our own leadership, as often happened in the book of Numbers.

Whether personal or social, the positive aspect of this period of “wandering” is that we may develop an attitude of trust, the quality of bitachon בטחוןParadoxically, by making it through the inevitable times of uncertainty and disorder in life, we may gain an inner quality of trust, the bedrock sense that we are connected to something larger than ourselves and that ultimately we (as individuals, community, society) will find our way.

In the Torah’s next book, as Moses looks back from the vantage point of old age, he teaches that our wanderings in the desert were for a purpose, to test us and to help us grow. Living in the “great and awesome” wilderness developed our people’s capacity for awe of the divine:

You shall remember all the way which YHWH your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that God might afflict you to test you, to know what wCaravan in Moroccan Sahara, Arielle Dananas in you heart, whether you would keep God’s commandments, or not. God afflicted
you, and allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had know; to let you know that a person does not live by bread alone, but by every thing directed by YHWH shall a person live. . .Who led you through the great and awesome wilderness, (with its) with venomous snakes and scorpions, and thirsty ground where was no water; Who brought forth water for you from of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna–unknown to your ancestors–that God might afflict you, to prove you, to do good for you in long run!”

Deuteronomy 8


Consider and Comment: What does the image of desert wandering mean to you in your own life? Have life’s challenges ever helped you to find bitachon, trust?

Featured image: In the Negev, Damien Mathieu via Flickr

Learn a Midrash about being as open as the Wilderness, or return to the Gateway of Wilderness.