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Bamidbar 5783                   May 20, 2023 

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom.

One of the things that Rabbis are always looking for in the text of the Torah is an unusual turn of a phrase or a word that seems out of place. These are clues that there is something going on in the text of the Torah; it is a phrase that sort of jumps off the page and calls out “Darshuni – Explain me!”

This week, our parsha starts out not with textual problems but with something that is very ordinary. It reads, “The Lord spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai…” The people of Israel are getting ready to make their journey across the desert and as they prepare to travel God speaks to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai. I don’t think we could expect God to be doing anything else at this moment in time other than advising Moses about how the travels are to commence. The book of Numbers begins with the plans for an orderly march through the desert. What the travels will end up with is one complaint after another. The entire book is about the trials and tribulations of the journey from Mt. Sinai to the Promised Land.

And yet, there is something important in this rather mundane statement that begins this book. We have seen God speak to Moses on Mt. Sinai. We have seen God speak to Moses from a burning bush. We expect to hear from God in special places, but to hear the voice of God in the wilderness? What is God doing out there in the desert? Isn’t the wilderness, by definition “God forsaken”?

Rev. Henry Emerson Fosdick, a famous preacher at Riverside Church in NYC in the first part of the twentieth century, noted that God often shows up in unexpected places. He tells the story of a little boy who asks his father, “Why are all the vitamins in spinach? Why are there no vitamins in ice cream?” Rev. Fosdick goes on to note that we don’t know why vitamins are all in spinach and not in ice cream and we don’t know why God speaks from the desert. This is just the way of the world.

I think that all of us, at some time in our lives, have wondered where God is hiding in our lives. In our moments of doubt and tragedy, we wonder where God is when we are in need of divine power and guidance. But from our verse, in the opening sentence in Bamidbar/Numbers, we learn that there is no place where God cannot be found. No matter where we go and what is happening, we know that God is always nearby. It is this faith that keeps us going whenever we feel lost and afraid.

Many times, I have taught that the Maariv Service begins with a prayer that God is with us both by day and by night. This is important to know. We human beings function much better by day than we do by night. We light up all kinds of lights in the evening because our eyes are meant for daylight, not for darkness. It is a terrible thing to be lost in the dark. If anyone has ever experienced complete darkness, you know that in total darkness, we not only cannot see, but our eyes play tricks with us, and we see movement that is not really there. In fact, all of our senses go haywire when we can’t see. Our sense of touch and hearing get far more sensitive when we are lost in the dark.

The Maariv service comes to tell us that while human beings don’t function well in the dark, it doesn’t make any difference to God. Light and darkness to God are all the same. The same God that watches over us by day, can watch over us just as well at night. The same God that speaks to us in synagogue and other holy places, speaks to us as well from out of the wilderness. The Psalmist says that the “entire earth is filled with God’s glory” and that includes the wilderness as well.

The Midrash Rabbah on this verse in Bamidbar tells the following parable:  Rabbi Berekhiah Hakohen said in the name of Rabbi Levi, “[A parable about] a king of flesh and blood who has a province. So, he sends competent leaders to conduct their affairs and to administer their justice. Who has the responsibility to pay them? Isn’t that the responsibility of the people of the province? The Holy One, blessed be He, did not act like that. Instead, he sent out Moses, Aaron, [and Miriam] … [And if was they], through their merit, who provided for Israel. The manna was through the merit of Moses… The clouds of glory [came] through the merit of Aaron… And the well [came] through the merit of Miriam… After that, I (God) brought them quail. (Numbers 11:31). [Again, God asked them:] “Have I been a desert for Israel?” (Jeremiah 2:31) Have I treated you like a desert? “Or a land of utter darkness?” (Ibid.)  Did I not become a light for you, a light by My own glory? It is so stated: “And the Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to give them light…” (Exodus 13:21) … Similarly, when the Holy One, blessed be He, came to the sea, it fled from Him, as stated: “The sea saw [Him] and fled.” (Psalms 114:3) He revealed Himself on Mount Sinai, [it also] fled, as stated: “The mountains danced like rams.” (Psalms 114:4) … When He came down into its midst, they began rejoicing, because the Holy One, blessed be He, was dwelling in their midst, as stated “The desert and the arid land shall be glad, and the wilderness shall rejoice and blossom like a crocus.” (Isaiah 35:1)

When God is found in the desert, it is not very much a desert at all. Instead of a barren wilderness God provides leadership, food, water, protection from the sun and an easier path to walk. God even provides light so B’nei Yisrael can walk to the Promised Land in the dark. But still the People of Israel complained at almost every step. There were rebellions and one crisis after another. God speaks from the wilderness and the people just do not hear God’s voice. They are so wrapped up in their own world that they miss the miracles that appear to surround them.

Those of us who know this story, know that what should have been a short walk in the desert becomes a 40 year journey so that one generation, a generation unprepared to fight for their freedom, a generation that could only remember the good food that they used to eat in
Egypt, could die in that desert and their children, the children of the desert, the children who only knew freedom and who were prepared to fight for their inheritance in a land of milk and honey, their children would inherit the land in the place of their parents.

My friend, Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein wrote in his D’var Torah this week; “This midrash [of God in the desert] wants us to try to set all of these difficulties aside and to be cognizant of the real good that allowed us to pull through the desert experience. What are we to make of this retrospective? The desert experience represents life and life’s exigencies. It is very easy to get caught up in despair and to forget about the guidance which sees us through our troubles. This midrash wants to remind us that even in the hardest of times there is light amidst the darkness, provided by God’s dwelling in our midst.”

It is so very easy in life, to only see the troubles that afflict us. It is so very easy to get lost in the darkness and despair of any hope of finding our way out of our difficulties. We sometimes feel like we are facing a mountain of troubles and that there seems to be no way to surmount our problems.

The very first verse of Bamidbar teaches us that God speaks to us from the desert. It reminds us that no matter how much sorrow and trouble we may face, God is always with us. It is God who carries us through our problems. God does not abandon us to the difficulties of life, but God is there to ease our passage. We see only the problems, but we forget to count the blessings.

The mountain of problems we face is, in the end, an optical illusion. God gives us the faith we need to climb that mountain and suddenly, when we reach the summit of that mountain, we look back and discover that it was only a speed bump. What we perceive to be a great obstacle in life, turns out, more often than not, to be just a bump in the road.

We have over a hundred reasons every day to thank God for the many blessings we receive. This is why we recite a blessing before each moment, to show our appreciation for the all the many miracles that God sends our way every day. There is a story of the crossing of the Red Sea that while everyone was astounded by the miracle, there were two guys who were complaining that the seabed was not fully dry, and they were getting mud on their sandals. The greatest miracle ever was happening all around them but all they could see was the mud on their shoes.

It is easy to only see the mud on our shoes. It is all too easy to wallow in pity and despair. Life is hard. We have to work hard to provide for our needs. We sometimes have to face one disaster after another until we are all worn down and exhausted. We get tired, frustrated, annoyed, and bothered when one disappointment after another needs to be addressed. And yet all around us are the miracles of life itself.  Not just the food and water that we need to sustain ourselves, but there are also the miracles of good friends, kind strangers, loving families, growing children and grandchildren. There is art to appreciate, books that can take us to faraway places, and poems to address the feelings in our hearts. There is the regular sunrise and the glorious sunsets to be appreciated. It is all God’s way of telling us that we are not alone, that we are never alone; that we should not complain about what we don’t have and that instead we should be joyful for that which God provides.

No matter how bad things might get, God’s voice can be heard coming from the desert. And as we say at the end of Adon Olam, at the end of our service: Adonai Li V’lo Ira – (When) God is with me, I have no reason to fear.  May God always bless us with the miracles of life, and may we be grateful for all the blessings we receive as we say ….

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784