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Desert Dialogue that Does Not Die
The pun is lost in translation - the Hebrew word Midbar - as in the desert wilderness where our ancestors wander for 40 years, the same as the name of this fourth book - also contains the word for ‘speaking’ - “medaber’ and in chapter 8 we finally hear why. In her profound Bewilderments:Reflections on the Book of Numbers, Aviva Gottlieb Zornber plays out the connection: “midbar is closely associated with issues of dibbur, of language and utterance. Ein midbar ela dibbur, declares one such midrashic source—“Wilderness is nothing but utterance”—cryptically playing with the roots for the two terms. In which case, we can say that the Book of the Wilderness yields a human language of querulous skepticism. Cries and whispers and rages and laments fill the air..”
We need the silence of the wide expanses to be better able to listen and to hear the inner voice that is calling in so many ways, possibly all the time. Isn’t this why we get out of town, turn off our phones, and sit quietly in our own forms of wilderness? Only in the wilderness of Sinai is Torah revealed, not just once on the mountain but constantly - from the heart of the sacred tent as it wanders the wild terrain along with the people. At the end of a very long chapter detailing the gifts of the leaders of each tribe in honor of the tabernacle’s launch - we are reminded of the point of the entire lavish operation:
וּבְבֹ֨א מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶל־אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵד֮ לְדַבֵּ֣ר אִתּוֹ֒ וַיִּשְׁמַ֨ע אֶת־הַקּ֜וֹל מִדַּבֵּ֣ר אֵלָ֗יו מֵעַ֤ל הַכַּפֹּ֙רֶת֙ אֲשֶׁר֙ עַל־אֲרֹ֣ן הָעֵדֻ֔ת מִבֵּ֖ין שְׁנֵ֣י הַכְּרֻבִ֑ים וַיְדַבֵּ֖ר אֵלָֽיו׃
“When Moses entered the Tent of Meeting to speak with God, he would hear the Voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Covenant between the two cherubs; thus He spoke to him.” (Ba 7:89)
The Hebrew word used here for ‘spoke’ - M’daber -uses the unique grammatical form of hitpa’el that sometimes describes a reciprocal action, as in an exchange between two parties. It is also written in the same letters as Midbar. In this case - that means whatever is conveyed by the divine is not just delivery of data - it’s a dialogue.
Prof.Benjamin D. Sommer, whom I was fortunate to have as a teacher at JTS, takes this notion of ongoing dialogue with the divine to the next really radical level: “In its own subtle and elusive way, Numbers 7:89 makes a significant theological claim similar to one that Maimonides would later expound in great detail in the most important work of Jewish philosophy, The Guide of the Perplexed: YHWH does not literally speak, and whenever the Torah refers to YHWH as “speaking,” we need to understand that something much more complex and mysterious is occurring, something that does not involve the sound waves and specific words used when people talk to each other... YHWH’s commands to Moses are not conveyed in language, and one of the most important roles played by Moses, by the prophets who came after him, and by the sages who succeeded them has been to translate YHWH’s communications into human terms.
The process of interpretation, then, did not begin after the revelation of the Torah. Instead, interpretation was part of the ongoing, dialogical process of revelation itself. Interpretation is not only an activity that is performed on the Torah; interpretation helped to create the Torah.”
Shh. Keep listening. Step by step we enter the deeper wild.