Parshat Bamidbar: Rabbi Weinreb’s First Parsha Column

This column initiates a weekly series of discussions on the biblical portion read every Sabbath in the synagogue. I intend to focus on a theme which relates directly to the person and his or her real life experiences. I will try to plumb the depths of the parsha to find gems of relevance.

This week, we begin a new book of the Bible, the fourth of the five books of Moses. In English, we are familiar with the title of this book as Numbers. This title is indeed apt because of the copious census material to be found in the opening chapters.

However, in Hebrew, the book is known as “Bemidbar,” which means “in the desert,” or better, “in the wilderness.” The people of Israel, after leaving Egypt, are doomed to forty years of wandering there. What personal meaning can we glean from this wilderness experience?

The historian Arnold Toynbee described a process common to great cultures and great heroes. He called this the dynamic of “withdrawal and return.” In Toynbee’s view, achieving greatness requires long periods of withdrawal from society, followed by re-entry and return.

The hero must go through a stage of solitude and alienation in preparation for rejoining the historical arena. In that stage, through introspection and often through deprivation and suffering, the hero learns and grows, enabling his return to a world ready for innovative leadership.

Moses himself is an excellent example of Toynbee’s dynamic. He withdrew for decades from the world of action, wandered in the desert as a shepherd, until his enlightenment, and then returned, reluctantly but forcefully, to the scene of world history.

The episodes we read in the synagogue for the next many weeks detail the “withdrawal” experience. The wilderness years are the crucial preparation for the return of the people of Israel to the theater of world history.

Toynbee’s insights can apply to each of us as individuals, even if we are not quite historical heroes. We each act in a world of our own, and we each need our periods of withdrawal.

Developmentally, withdrawal comes to human beings during adolescence. The adolescent years are preparatory to our “return” to the world of responsibility. They are a moratorium of sorts, during which we learn and experiment to equip ourselves for the return to the world of maturity.

Throughout life, however, if we are to effectively accrue new and deeper learnings, we need periodic times of withdrawal. These times can be the “breaks” in our daily lives, vacations, travel, and the distractions of hobbies and vocational interests.

For men and women of faith, these episodes of withdrawal are the religious experiences that prepare us to rejoin the material world, the world of deeds and physical realities.

The prophet Jeremiah longed to retreat into the desert; a dramatic example of such a withdrawal. The contemporary Jew learns to consider the “withdrawal” opportunities offered by our tradition. They include prayer, contemplative study, song, and intense “I-and-Thou” fellowship.

Judaism has wisely built into our lives the weekly rhythm of Sabbath and weekday as a way of mirroring the pattern of withdrawal and return. The Jewish Sabbath offers each of us a context for the prayer, study, and fellowship, which comprise the essence of “withdrawal.”

The deeper and more spiritual aspect to the withdrawal is relevant even to those who do not think of themselves as “spiritual”. Withdrawal in this deeper sense is a context for inner transformation and an opportunity for profound learning. It is also a time to define the objectives of the “return” and the strategies to achieve them.

For me, this paradigm is what Jewish practice is all about. Daily prayer is a time for withdrawal. The Sabbath is such a time, as are the major festivals. And the solemn days of the year, especially Yom Kippur, are special withdrawal opportunities. Each is followed by a return to the “real world,” a “return” for which we are better prepared because of our “withdrawal” respite.

Achieving the rhythm of “withdrawal and return” is a vital personal task. The “wilderness” experience of which we will read in the book of Numbers must be understood as a period of national preparation and transformation. And our faith provides us with the context for our own “withdrawal and return,” for personal inner growth and outer action.