All I really need to know I learned in the wilderness


Numbers 1:1-4:20

Hosea 2:1-2:22

The Hebrew name for the fourth book of the Torah is Bamidbar, “in the wilderness.” When we imagine a wilderness, we have a picture of a wild and dangerous place, a place where we live on the edge of hunger and thirst, a place filled with snakes and scorpions and other threatening creatures. We think of a region where we are constantly exposed to life’s dangers and are painfully aware of how vulnerable we are.

There is another image of wilderness that comes to mind, and that is emptiness. Yet the wilderness was hardly an empty place for Israel. Indeed, it was filled with meaning, with symbols, with metaphor and with a deep richness of purpose.

It is in the wilderness that Israel became a nation, learned the lessons in the Torah and overcame slavery. Israel entered the wilderness as a band of slaves and left a well-trained and highly disciplined military unit prepared to conquer the land of Canaan and create a nation.

The wilderness was a training ground for Israel. To paraphrase the title of a popular book from a few years ago, “Everything Israel needed to learn, they learned in the wilderness.” And the same might be said about us. There are lessons to be learned from Israel’s sojourn that are relevant to our lives. Here are three that I first heard from Rabbi Jack Riemer.

Lesson 1: Life is a lot more like the wilderness than you think.

For all the drama of the Red Sea and the revelation on Mount Sinai, life is not always filled with such excitement and drama on an ongoing basis. Israel spent less than a year traveling to and then camping at Sinai.

That is often the way life is. We get so caught up planning and working toward big events — such as a bar or bat mitzvah, or a wedding, or a graduation — that we sometimes forget that such events are not the only reality. They are the exceptions to our regular lives. In the blink of an eye they pass.

For most of our lives, we are doing our job and setting up camp. We want drama, excitement and romance, but that is not what life is always about; it is about making the journey through the wilderness and getting there without too many scratches and bruises.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. If we stop and pay attention, we would discover that there is a lot to be gained along the way, even in the wilderness.

Lesson 2: Since life is a journey, what counts is not getting there, but making the most of the trip.

The Torah teaches us that even Moses did not reach his final destination. From the time we are young, we ask (and even hear from others), “Are we there yet?” We are so busy pursuing our goals that we fail to notice the blessings along the way.

The Torah is the story of a very long journey that began in Egypt. Yet the journey does not end within the pages of the Torah. Israel’s journey concludes at the shore of the Jordan River just short of the Promised Land. What the Torah is trying to tell us is that making the journey is more important than reaching the destination.

Lesson 3: Take nothing for granted.

In the wilderness Israel learned to take nothing for granted. Every rock contained a fountain of water. Though they spent a good deal of time complaining and whining, the Israelites also learned that God often provided them with what they needed when they were patient enough to stop and look.

There are more lessons to be learned from the wilderness. A wilderness, the rabbis tell us, is a “makom hefker,” an ownerless place, to remind us that we do not own life, that we must be open to all of life’s potential. It is not only a place between Egypt and the Promised Land, but an opportunity to grow, to change and to deepen our spiritual connections.

Any wilderness that we can find today, inside or out, can be a place that allows us to slow down and appreciate each day and each relationship. It can be a place where we can retreat and from which we can go forth renewed. What is the wilderness for each of us? What will each one of our journeys be?

Rabbi Larry Raphael is the senior rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.