Congregation Etz Hayim at Hollis Hills Bayside

The consolidated communities of Hollis Hills Bayside Jewish Center and Marathon Jewish Community Center

Shabbat Bemidbar 5775

What does the word wilderness mean to you?

As we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah, Sefer Bemidbar, we note that while its common English name isNumbers, the Hebrew term describes more than just the census in the first section of the book. Bemidbar is about the Israelite journey to the Promised Land. It’s an extended hike through the wilderness.

On the one hand, when we think of wilderness, we think of its first syllable–wild–as indicative of something inhospitable, untamed, and to be avoided. For instance, Jon Krakauer’s acclaimed book Into the Wild tells the story of the ill-fated expedition of Christopher McCandless in the wilderness of Alaska. In this portrayal, the wilderness is guaranteed to be the grave of anyone who tries to inhabit it.

On the other hand, just this week Representative Jared Polis of Colorado introduced the Continental Divide Recreation and Wilderness Protection Act, which would preserve sections of the Rocky Mountains. It is precisely because of the life force of the wilderness that this bill is being proposed. Not only is this form of wilderness home to all forms of creatures–hence the term wildlife–but it’s also famous for its hiking and skiing trails, which would be better preserved if the law were to pass. In other words, wilderness is not here understood as bereft of life, but as a way to cultivate and enhance it.

The Israelite experience bemidbar–in the wilderness–can be read in two conflicting ways as well. It’s the introductory thought in Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg’s new book on the Book of Numbers calledBewilderments. Was the Israelite trek through the wilderness a 40-year death march? Or was it a long walk in the woods with God, an extended period of getting to know one another? On Shabbat morning, we’ll look at a passage from the book and consider what these contrasting interpretations might mean for us, even if we never step foot in a wilderness.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameah,

Rabbi David Wise