In the wilderness, the gift of Torah teaches limitations


Numbers 1:1-4:20

Hosea 2:1-22

In the entire portion of Bemidbar, what calls to me most is a single word that speaks volumes: Bemidbar — "In the wilderness [of Sinai]" — is the word that gives the parashah and the book itself (Numbers in English) their Hebrew names.

Why does so much of the Torah take place in the wilderness? Why is the Torah given in the wilderness? What does our people's wilderness experience have to teach us?

I recently read a stunning chapter, entitled "Willingness and Willfulness," in Gerald May's book about spiritual direction, "Will and Spirit." May contrasts two perspectives on life, two attitudes of the mind and spirit, two ways of being.

"Willfulness," in his view, is the orientation in which we believe that we are in charge, that we make things happen in our lives, that our lives unfold according to our own choices and our own efforts. "Willingness," by contrast, is the attitude that recognizes that we cannot always be in control, that we are surrounded by mystery, by much that is larger than we are. "Willingness," for May, is receptivity, openness to surprise and wonder and guidance, readiness for change, acceptance and humility.

Our culture, of course, treasures willfulness. This worldview assumes that we can do anything if we try hard enough. If not, we have simply failed. That is why our culture is so ill-equipped to deal with life's larger questions — the issues and events that we cannot fix or manipulate simply by force of will or effort.

Spiritual life, by contrast, is about willingness: willingness to serve community and life and God, willingness to put the needs of others above our own, openness to learning and guidance, to mystery and awe.

In this context, I am drawn to the biblical commentators' rich reflections on the midbar/wilderness. The Sefat Emet, commenting on the word "bemidbar," recalls one rabbinic midrash that likens Torah to the wilderness. The Torah is like the wilderness, the midrash says, because "it has to be as ownerless as wilderness." The simple meaning of the verse "From the wilderness to Mattanah" (Numbers 21:18) describes a journey from one place to another. But the midrash recognizes that this place name, "Mattanah," means gift. And so, the verse teaches, "From the wilderness, a gift."

The wilderness? A gift? Open the Book of Bemidbar to almost any chapter and you will find stories of the people's struggles on their journey through the wilderness. This was clearly a gift that the people did not embrace. Nor do we, most of the time, embrace the gifts that may emerge out of our own wilderness experiences — our times of being lost, terrified, bereft or disoriented. The midrash reminds us that the wilderness can indeed bring gifts. After all, the Torah itself, the ultimate gift of God's wisdom, was given to us in the wilderness.

The word "midbar" itself, continues the Sefat Emet in his commentary, reveals a profound teaching about life. "The word 'midbar' comes from a root meaning 'to lead' or 'rule.' The 'midbar' is one who submits to that rule, the person who negates his own self, realizing that he has no power to act without the life-flow of God…

"Thus we are told that fear of heaven applies 'in the open and in secret.' 'In the open' means to know that God oversees all things; this brings you to a state of awe. But 'in secret' means that the fear of God attaches itself to a person's very life-force so that he can do nothing, not even make a simple movement, without remembering that it takes place through the power of God and that he himself is as but an axe in the hand of the one who chops with it" ("The Language of Truth," translated by Arthur Green, pages 219-20).

Notice how difficult this kind of language may be for us to absorb. We hate being reminded of the limits of our power. We are offended at the idea that our capabilities are finite and that the fact that we are alive is itself dependent on powers beyond our control.

So, the Torah invites us, again and again, to contemplate the nature of the wilderness. We are asked to picture ourselves there — in a place where we are lost and powerless and frightened. Into that core place in our lives comes the Torah, bringing divine truth and wisdom and perspective.

This Shabbat, and this Shavuot, may we embrace the truth of our lives "in the wilderness," our own limitation and finitude, so that we may be ready once again, with willingness, to accept the gift of Torah.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at