There is another name for Sefer Bamidbar: the Book of In-the-Wilderness. Awkward in English translation, this is its common Hebrew name; the word Bamidbar is simply the first usable word in the book. But the wilderness plays a central role in the book: it is the great leveler, place of death, that which engulfs all. Three times, God speaks of "this wilderness," conveying the uncanny horror of the place.
The relation of the two names—Numbers and In-the-Wilderness—creates a field of tension: between them, the failure of a great enterprise is positioned at the very heart of the book, in that physical and metaphysical space that is called midbar. The wilderness is more than context; it provides the tone and tension of a narrative of dying. The journey of the people over these thirty-eight years has as its purpose its disappearance into the unmarked sands.
What is this midbar? For that original generation of travelers, it was once intended as the transitional space between Egypt and the Land of Israel; now it has become something else—a clearing ground for the future. What can be said about the space that is to become a dead end for those who once embarked on a journey? Is this the very nature of the midbar—the unmarked surface on which no human trace is visible?
We remember previous and later references to "that great and terrible midbar." For instance, Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, makes his way from Midian "to Moses, to the wilderness where he was encamped, the mountain of God" (Exod. 18:5). Rashi responds to the apparent redundancy ("We too know that Moses was in the wilderness!"), by reading Jethro's journey as a moral choice: "The text speaks in praise of Jethro, who was ensconced in all the glory [kavod] of the world when his heart moved him to leave for the wilderness, that place of void—tohu—in order to hear words of Torah."
The wilderness is the place of emptiness and void. Like the uncreated world, it lacks all kavod, all the density and structure of the settled world that Jethro comes from. What brings him on this strange journey—to a place where the human being is unknown and unhonored—is his heart's desire to "hear words of Torah." With such a wish, he will brave the voids of the midbar. Or, more strangely, perhaps this void is the only possible site in which his wish may be granted. Precisely in this silent, unmarked place, the voice of God will resound.
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg lives and lectures on Torah in Jerusalem. She is the author of five critically acclaimed books.
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