This week, we begin reading the fourth book of the חמישה חומשי תורה; Sefer Bemidbar, called “Numbers” in English. Naming our sefer ‘Numbers’ makes sense on a basic level because most of our פרשה and many subsequent פרשיות contain censes of the Jewish People. But why would our ספר be given such a vague name as במדבר (lit. “in the desert”)? Isn’t there more to the fourth sefer than its setting? Would really name an entire ספר just because of its opening פסוקים?
Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth Lord Jonathan Sacks gives a deeper explanation of the name במדבר. After leaving Egypt, בני ישראל were little more than a disassociated group of people, driven together by their slavery and shared ancestry. However, for them to be successful in running and living in their own country, the Jewish people needed to become more than that- they needed to become a full-fledged nation. Their time in the desert provided an opportunity for these formative experiences to take place, without many of the responsibilities of running a country, so that when they entered ארץ ישראל, the Jews would not just be בני ישראל- they would be עם ישראל. Rav Sacks expounds on this point by quoting the works of French religion anthropologist Arnold van Gennep:
Van Gennep in his The Rites of Passage argued that societies develop rituals to mark the transition from one state to the next – from childhood to adulthood, for example, or from being single to being married – and they involve three stages. The first is separation, a symbolic break with the past. The third is incorporation, re-entering society with a new identity. Between the two is the crucial stage of transition when, having said goodbye to who you were but not yet hello to who you are about to become, you are recast, reborn, refashioned.
Van Gennep used the term liminal, from the Latin word for “threshold,” to describe this second state when you are in a kind of no-man’s-land between the old and the new. That is clearly what the wilderness signifies for Israel: liminal space between Egypt and the Promised Land. There Israel is reborn, no longer a group of escaping slaves but “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”1
Rav Sacks concludes that the desert, a no-man’s land, was the ideal place for the Jewish People to go through this “awkward in-between phase-” the “tween years” of our nation- so that we leave behind the nation that was enslaved by Egypt and assume our “adult” identity. This explains why our ספר is called במדבר- because it is about the “במדבר/adolescent” stage of the Jewish People, where we continue to rebel despite the constant miracles, but at the same time, we become more defined under the leadership of יהושע בן נון and אלעזר הכהן, in preparation for national adulthood when we would enter ארץ ישראל as a fully developed nation.
This paradigm of a nation in an awkward in-between stage, can also very much explain the modern-day Jewish People. We too are at a transition in our national development- we have been released from the shackles of גלות, the way to the גאולה is open, and like the Jews of the מדבר, we are surrounded by miracles. Unfortunately, like the דור המדבר, we aren’t there yet. In order to get חיזוק on how far we’ve come, one need only look at the holiday commemorated on Wednesday by עם ישראל worldwide- the celebration of the miracle of חירות ירושלים.
The only place that יום ירושלים is mentioned in תנ”ך is in less than happy circumstances:
“זכר ה’ לבני אדום את יום ירושלם האומרים ערו ערו עד היסוד בה- Remember, Lord, against the children of Edom, the day of Jerusalem where they said ‘destroy it, destroy it, even to the foundation” (תהילים קלז:ז)
This פרק, recited by many before ברכת המזון, is a reminder of the original יום ירושלים- the day of the חורבן בית המקדש. This יום ירושלים, one of the saddest days in Jewish history, left our Holy city in a bad state. However, if we look at the Jerusalem of תשע”ג, we see that ירושלים’s luck has turned for the better. On Wednesday, over 60,000 Jews, many of them residents of Jerusalem, danced through the city to celebrate the 46th anniversary of her freedom from captivity- our city is clearly not the same one that was left in destruction, as our own people once again dwell in the city of our fathers. However, just like בני ישראל in the מדבר, the center of the Jewish future has not quite finished its journey yet- it’s still not “ירושלים הבנויה עיר שחוברה לה יחדיו,” because we are still missing the most important building in the city- the third בית המקדש. So, even as we celebrate the reunification of ירושלים, there is still something missing, we are still not there yet.
However, just as בני ישראל eventually reached their destination at ארץ ישראל and outgrew their “teenage years”, we too will eventually do the same – it’s only a matter of time. In the meantime, we need to continue to do teshuva, take proactive measures to ensure that we will be in the right place when the right time comes, and with Hashem’s help, we will see the coming of the גאולה very soon so that next יום ירושלים will be a complete celebration, the past negative connotations forgotten, and we will be able to see our nation united in the Holy Land, very speedily in our days. Shabbat Shalom
- Covenant and Conversation: Bemidbar 577- The Space Between <http://www.chiefrabbi.org/2011/05/28/covenant-conversation-5771-bamidbar-the-space-between/#.UYu1YrVmiSo>