The Exodus is described as eloping to the desert. The groom, a knight in shining armor, swooped in to save the damsel in distress, who had been enslaved and abused. Would the bride take the enormous leap....
All new beginnings are charged with hope; the beginning of a new book of the Torah is no exception. As the book of Bamidbar opens, there is hope that the journey upon which the Jews embarked as they left Egypt would finally bring them to the Promised Land. The book of Vayikra did not document any movement toward their destination: Throughout the entire book, the nation seemed rooted to one spot; their location remained unchanged. Now, we begin again. The journey resumes.
From this perspective, though, the name of the book - “Bamidbar” – ‘in the desert’ - is ominous. The desert is a foreboding, even frightening place; might not the name itself give us reason to suspect that the events this book describes will be less than successful? Those of us who know how the book ends are aware that there is progress, and a great deal of movement: At the book’s conclusion, we are poised at the cusp of the Promised Land, yet the trip is far longer and more difficult than we had anticipated. The path is circuitous, and the people stumble and fall many times along the way. The Land of Israel, while much closer, remains out of reach.
Is there something about the desert itself that makes this so? The desert is mentioned many times in the early books of the Torah, in many different contexts, but time and again, the desert imparts a sense of fear, dread and danger. The desert is not a forgiving environment; the basic resources required for human existence are severely limited. Certainly in antiquity the desert was associated - if not synonymous with - death. An en massejourney through the desert would have been considered an absurdity. Perhaps the name of the book is a foreshadowing, a premonition that this endeavor will not work out well.
Why, then, did God choose this route? Moshe explained the plan and purpose of the journey through the desert:
Remember the entire path along which God your Lord led you these forty years in the desert. He sent hardships to test (or uplift) you, to determine what is in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not…But your heart may then grow haughty, and you may forget God your Lord, the One who brought you out of the slave house that was Egypt. It was He who led you through the great, terrifying desert, where there were snakes, vipers, scorpions and thirst. When there was no water, it was He who provided you water from a solid rock. In the desert He fed you Manna, which was something that your ancestors never knew. He may have been sending hardships to test you, but it was so He would eventually do [all the more] good for you. [When you later have prosperity, be careful that you not] say to yourself, 'It was my own strength and personal power that brought me all this prosperity.' You must remember that it is God your Lord who gives you the power to become prosperous. He does this so as to keep the covenant and the oath that He made with your fathers, even as [He is keeping it] today. (Dvarim 8:2-18)
The difficulties of the desert are not whitewashed, but a rationale is provided: The trek through the desert is a necessary stage of development, designed to put the people’s commitment to the test, and, as a result, to uplift them, to make them stronger and help them create a new type of relationship with God, a relationship based on trust.
The prophet describes the desert experience in the most romantic terms:
Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus said the Almighty: I remember you, the devotion of your youth, your love like a bride, when you went after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown. (Yirmiyahu 2:2)
The Midrash apparently picks up on this theme and explains the deeper significance of the opening verse of the book of Bamidbar:
God spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the Communion Tent on the first [day] of the second month in the second year of the Exodus, saying: (Bamidbar 1:1)
While this verse seems prosaic, it should strike us as somewhat unusual in that it provides the precise date of an event – the month, the day of the month, and the year. Precise dates such as these were totally absent in the book of Vayikra; in fact, no such markers were provided in the Torah as far back as the middle of the book of Shmot. The Midrash takes note of this very this particular form, and draws a parallel with the laws of writing aketubah: Marriage contracts, more than any other type of document, must specify the place and precise date on which they are written. Thus, the opening sentences of the book of Bamidbar, according to the Midrash, are an expression of the blossoming relationship between God and the Jewish People. This relationship is precious to God; He values it, and by writing a “ketubah” He expresses the seriousness of the relationship. This “ketubah” honors the Children of Israel, by proclaiming that this is no passing infatuation. The “groom,” God Himself, aware as He is of the “bride’s” lineage, cognizant that she is the descendant of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, creates an eternal bond of commitment.
This formalization of their mutual commitment comes on the heels of a whirlwind romance: The Exodus is described as eloping to the desert. The groom, a knight in shining armor, swooped in to save the damsel in distress, who had been enslaved and abused. Would the bride take the enormous leap – of faith, but more importantly, of love, and follow her rescuer out into the unknown, to a place with no resources and no other options? Yes, she responds: I will follow you to the ends of the earth, even to the foreboding desert. God responds; he writes a formal ketubah between Himself and His loving bride, the People of Israel.
Mystical tradition teaches that in the future, when all other merit is exhausted, it will be this “leap of love” that God will recall. Our willingness to follow Him through the desert is the foundation stone of our relationship, and it is what compels God to forgive our lapses and to maintain our special relationship throughout history.
For a more in-depth analysis see: