Drash on Parashat Bamidbar 2018
Rabbi Martha Bergadine
United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong
Perhaps because I am the mother of a newly minted university graduate, I have been thinking a lot about transitions lately. No longer a student and not yet a working professional, my daughter resides in an unlabeled land equally fraught with ambiguity – what will be next? – and wide open to possibility – what might be next?
In this week’s parasha, Bemidbar, the Israelites are in a similar position. After escaping slavery in Egypt and receiving the Torah at Sinai, they now find themselves bamidbar, in the wilderness, beginning a 38-year period between the revelation at Sinai and entering the Promised Land. While this period may seem aimless – we speak of the Israelites “wandering in the wilderness” – this time is highly significant because it is in the wilderness that the newly freed slaves become a people.
The ethnographer and folklorist Arnold van Gennep provides an insight into the transformative power of the wilderness. In his influential Les rites de passage/The Rites of Passage, van Gennep described what he termed as a “liminal” state, based on the Latin word for “threshold.” He wrote that rites of passage occur in three stages beginning with separation, a symbolic detachment from the past or group, and ending with incorporation, re-entering society with a new status or identity. In between is a transition stage or liminal state, a sort of no-man’s land between the old and the new, between the “no longer” and the “yet to be.”
The time in the wilderness is clearly a liminal state for Israel. It is in the midbar, the desert no-man’s land, that the descendants of Jacob become a nation. Here the escaping slaves separate from old identities and ways of thinking and emerge in the end as the People Israel.
In his The Holy Land, Israeli historian Nachman Ran describes how the wilderness experience served as a period of nation building and religious development. He writes that not just the time but the wilderness landscape itself was transformative:
To a people whose entire living generation had seen only the level lands of Egypt, the Israelite march into this region of mountain magnificence, with its sharp and splintered peaks and profound valleys, must have been a perpetual source of astonishment and awe. No nobler school could have been conceived for training a nation of slaves into a nation of freemen or weaning a people from the grossness of idolatry to a sense of the grandeur and power of the God alike of Nature and Mind.
Liminal states are uncomfortable, filled with ambiguity and uncertainty. Israel’s time in the wilderness was no different. Beyond our parasha, the book of Bemidbar/Numbers is filled with stories of complaint, whining, questioning, fear, disloyalty, and open rebellion. The original Exodus generation fails in the struggle to grow, but the people as a whole are transformed and recast enter the Promised Land.
As individuals, we sometimes find ourselves bamidbar, in the wilderness. When we leave what is familiar, sometimes even constricting, whether a relationship, a job, or a stage of life, we often find ourselves a bit lost, wandering in a liminal, between-place. We are no longer who or what we were and we are not yet what we will become. It can feel frightening or exhilarating or both at the same time. When we find ourselves bamidar, we must remember that the wilderness is not only harsh and barren but can also be a place of nurture and transformation into the promise of the future.
Change is never easy. But we can take heart from our people’s experience, expressed in the words found in the siddur
Standing on the parted shores of history
we still believe what were taught
before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;
that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
that there is a better place, a promised land;
that the winding way to that promise
passes through the wilderness.
That there is no way to get from here to there
except by joining hands, marching
Michael Walzer from Mishkan T’filah