A Divine Dose: Bamidbar and Israel

Alissa Thomas
June 24, 2013
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The medicine swishes back and forth in the syringe, but I only see the sharp, threatening needle inching closer and closer to my exposed skin. The cure and care are inevitable, and all I need to overcome is the doctor’s ‘little prick followed by a slight pressure’ against my skin. Nevertheless, since childhood I have always resisted shots.

Each year when we reopen Sefer Bamidbar, I am struck by a similar resistance. The journey through the wilderness is a spiritual rollercoaster in which we ready ourselves to enter into the Promised Land. But through reading it, we must face and overcome the needles of doubt and wandering in our people’s history in order to not only heal but also to merit our greatest responsibility, the land of Israel.

What is the needle?

The needle is the very real struggle that Bamidbar embodies: the experience of wandering between the real and the ideal.

The midbar, the desert or wilderness, serves as the narrative point between the redemption from Egypt and the entrance into Israel. In the midbar, the Israelites receive the Torah and live intimately with God, enveloped in divine guidance and support, even unto the necessities of nourishment and shelter.

As Rashi indicates in Bamidbar 1:1, God takes a census ‘mitoch chibatan lefanav,’ ‘because they [the Israelites] were dear to Him’. We begin the book believing that the worst is over and only closeness to God and a land ‘zavat chalav udvash,’ ‘flowing with milk and honey’ await us. Ideally, each step in the wilderness is not a blind wandering, but rather an intentional stride toward the promise we have been waiting for since God’s brit with Avraham in Bereshit—our entering into our long awaited home, Israel.

But then the needle emerges.

Shockingly, the story of our wilderness tells of our inability to get into the land, or rather our inability to become spiritually ready to receive the land. We see the meraglim and the punishment of dor hamidbar, as well as the tzaraat of the prophetess Miriam and the rebellion of Korach.

If Matan Torah at Har Sinai wedded God and Israel, then the midbar should have be the ideal honeymoon between the Lover and His beloved. But in reality, Sefer Bamidbar is filled with disaster and disobedience. The book intertwines hope and disappointment, devotion and destruction, faith and fear.

Why is it so hard for us to get to Israel?

Like the shot moving rapidly toward me, I just cannot look. My resistance peaks as the reality of human flaw, fragility and failure meet the heartbroken God Who both forgives and punishes. The spies return to report of ‘et haaretz asher meastem bah’, ‘the land that they despised’ (Bamidbar 14:31). The rejection of the land serves as the abandonment of faith in God.

The needle pierces our skin.

What is the cure?

In facing the reality of flaw and struggle in Bamidbar, we both instill humility and awe in our hearts and learn the true value of Israel. The medicine pours into our veins alerting us that though we live in a reality of flaw, God promised us the opportunity of Israel, and it is our responsibility to realize that promise. In Bamidbar, entering into the land began as an ideal, but it eventually had to become a very real, earned, and nourished responsibility.

We are blessed to live in an unparalleled time when the international community recognizes the Jewish State of Israel. The creation of the State of Israel was a dream and an ideal for the founding Zionists. Today, it is a reality. But a reality includes dreams and conflicts, a tension that God taught us in Sefer Bamidbar.

May each time we enter into the land of Israel, whether the physical land or the biblical account, we feel the great responsibility of being a people wedded to the Ideal and living in the real. May we learn from the mistakes and pain of our past. May we see Israel as a goal, as a closeness to God, and as a culmination and inspiration for our purpose as Jews. May we emulate God’s goodness and treat Jews and non-Jews with humility and overwhelming love.

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Alissa Thomas is currently a student at Yeshivat Maharat. She graduated from Brandeis University with a bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and a bachelor’s degree in Classical Studies Archaeology and Ancient History. She has studied at Machon Pardes, Neve Yerushalayim, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She has completed one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Bellevue Hospital and is also the present Rosh Beit Midrash for Uri L’Tzedek. She is originally from Los Angeles, California and currently lives in New York City.

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