Rabbi Weinreb’s Parsha Column, Bemidbar

“Flourishing in the Desert”

I trace back my love of poetry to Mr. Perle. He taught freshman English in the high school I attended. I remember him as diminutive in stature, but not at all diminutive in his ability to inspire reluctant students to read, and to actually enjoy, fine literature.

He had a way of finding poets and poems that we could relate to as teenagers. One of the more unusual collections of poems to which he directed us was a slim volume entitled archy and mehitabel. In case the critical reader of these lines hastens to correct the fact that the “a” and “m” of the names of the protagonists are in lowercase, let me assure you that that is precisely the way the author, Don Marquis, insisted those names be spelled.

In these poems, the future of our civilization is envisioned in a shockingly pessimistic way. Again and again, the poet predicted that the world we know would eventually, and perhaps quite soon, be transformed into a desert. Let me give you some examples:

it won’t be long now it won’t be long
man is making deserts of the earth
it won’t be long now
before man will have it used up
so that nothing but ants
and centipedes and scorpions
can find a living on it

What man calls civilization
always results in deserts

It won’t be long now it won’t be long
till earth is barren as the moon
and sapless as a mumbled bone

Over the years, I find myself returning from time to time to archy and mehitabel, mostly because of my fascination with the image of the desert as antagonistic to civilization. I understand this fascination to be related to the fact that the formation of the Jewish people took place in the desert. That story is told in the book of the Pentateuch which we begin this Sabbath. Although this book is known in the English language as the book of Numbers, in Hebrew, the name of the book is Bemidbar, which actually translates as “In the Desert.” Bemidbar is the name of the entire book and is also the name of this week’s Torah portion, “In the Desert.”

The desert is the context in which the Torah was given. Indeed, this week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar, immediately precedes the Festival of Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Why? What connection can there possibly be between the desert, which evokes the images of desolation reflected in the poems of Don Marquis, and the Torah? Why would the Almighty choose the desert in which to give us His treasure?

These questions are made even stronger by the fact that it is not just some 20th-century poet who describes the desert as a place of desolation. The Bible itself describes the desert in severe terms. “He found him in a desert region, in an empty howling waste.” (Deuteronomy 32:10) “…A land of deserts and pits, a land of drought and darkness, a land no man had traversed, where no human being had dwelt.” (Jeremiah 2:6)

Maimonides, in his Guide to the Perplexed, has a very insightful answer to why the Jewish people had to experience the desert wasteland on their path towards nationhood. He asserts that in order to appreciate what is good in life, one must first experience suffering. The very fact that the desert was so challenging enabled the Jewish people to embrace the Torah and cherish the Land of Israel.

Other commentators suggest a slightly different approach. The desert is an example of nature in the raw. Unprocessed, untamed, unchanged since the six days of Creation. The Mishnah tells us that when one beholds the desert, he is to recite the blessing: “Blessed are you, O Lord…Author of creation.” The desert is the archetype of a work of nature which is untouched, but which awaits human hands to cultivate it and extract its inherent potential.

The Jewish nation begins as a desert and awaits the power of the Torah in order to become transformed from a wasteland into a luxurious garden. Perhaps this is why the Torah was given in the desert and why Jewish people had its beginnings there.

Hence the vision of Isaiah:

I will turn the desert into ponds,
the arid land into springs of water.
I will plant cedars in the wilderness…
I will set cypresses in the desert… (Isaiah 41:18-19)

I have long understood one of the beautiful customs of the holiday of Shavuot as an attempt to build upon the imagery of this connection between the desert and the giving of the Torah. I refer to the custom of decorating the synagogue and the home with flowers and greenery as part of the celebration of the holiday. It is as if the Jew is actively transforming the arid desert, which is the venue of the Torah passage that is read the Sabbath before Shavuot, into the lush and fertile environment which symbolizes the theme of the day, “matan torahtenu, the gift of the Torah.”

The message here is an important one. The desert indeed begins as a barren and desolate place, even a place of danger. As well, civilization can deteriorate into a desert. But the desert need not remain what it was originally. When touched by Torah, by God-given guidelines for ethical behavior and moral conduct, the desert undergoes a metamorphosis.

And so it is with civilization. Without Torah, society runs the danger of becoming corrupt, degenerate and perverse. With Torah, society can be refined, elevated and perfected. This is what we can learn from the fact that this week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar, the desert, invariably precedes the holiday of Shavuot.

When we, each in our own way, receive the Torah and its message this coming week on the Festival of Shavuot, we will be prepared to sing the song of the Prophet:

He has made her wilderness like Eden,
Her desert like the garden of the Lord.
Gladness and joy shall abide there,
Thanksgiving and the sound of music. (Isaiah 51:3)

That is the theme and the message of the beautiful holiday which we will soon be privileged to celebrate together.