Bemidbar: On hearing the still, small voice of God


Numbers 1:1-4:20

Hosea 2:1-22

The prophet Elijah, the famous, if elusive Passover seder guest, is not as well known for his slaughter of pagan prophets. The Book of I Kings (18:40) records such an incident. King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, sought to exact revenge for this deed, which caused Elijah to flee to the desert where he had several supernatural encounters (I Kings 19:1-12). The most dramatic and powerful of these occurred when God commanded Elijah to stand at a nearby mountain:

And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire — a still, small voice.

In awesome displays of nature that should have provided potent evidence of God, God was absent. But in the quiet of the cold desert night, the still, small voice issued forth from the wilderness. Thus, the biblical author suggests that individuals often look in the wrong places when seeking God in thunder, lightning, gale-force winds, violent temblors and cataclysmic cosmic events.

Examine the biblical accounts of the matriarchs and patriarchs, and more often than not they received affirmation of God's presence in the most stark, desolate places, often when least expected. No Cecil B. DeMille-type theatrics announce God's momentary break into time and history; they simply occur in the stillness of the barren desert.

Bemidbar, this week's Torah portion, means "in the wilderness." It is also the Hebrew name of the Book of Numbers, which deals with the desert experience of the emerging Israelite nation. The desert-wandering Israelites are known in Jewish tradition as Dor haMidbar, the wilderness generation. This is a pejorative term for our ancestors doomed to live out their lives wandering from place to place, without ever entering the Promised Land, because they sought the divine in a golden idol rather than in the stillness of the desert wasteland.

Nevertheless, Bemidbar sets the tone for later biblical notables to find the presence of God in the desert. For example, Jonah, fleeing from God, sought refuge in the desert under the shade of a miraculous vine that grew up and perished in a single night. It was there that this reluctant prophet acceded to God's prophetic call.

Moses escaped to the desert when he feared retribution for having killed an Egyptian taskmaster. In that uninhabited wilderness, he sighted the unconsumed fiery bush and received his unexpected, unwanted call. Centuries later, ascetic Shimon bar Yohai fled the Roman rulers and lived in a desert cave for 12 years, where he became the progenitor of mystical tradition.

The Essenes, the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, moved their entire community to Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea in the unrealized hope that they might live peacefully, far away from the oppressive Romans. They sought to commune with God, carefully recorded their theology on parchment and then vanished forever.

How much like the Dor haMidbar we modern Jews are! We often feel that we have lost the way and we start our search again and again. Sometimes, rare though it may be, we are privileged to hear the voice of God — not in the thunder, wind, lightning or earthquake — but in a still, small voice. If we are among the lucky few, we may feel the tug that Elijah felt, an allure best described by Denise Levertov's poem entitled "The Thread," in which: "Something is very gently,/ invisibly, silently,/ pulling at me — a thread/ or a net of threads/ finer than cobweb and as/ elastic."

No matter where we may live, we are all desert wanderers who hope to stand in the shoes of Elijah, at least for one rare moment, to hear the still, small voice that calls to us, but which is heard only by an extraordinarily few seekers.