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Haftara for Bemidbar 5777: The Desert of the Real
“One is unable to notice something when it is always before one’s eyes.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein
Hoshea’s words open the haftara with a grand prophecy of renewal, reconciliation and reunification of the tribes of Israel into a single nation. Earlier statements of God’s rejection of the people are reversed to words of embrace and belonging.
Hoshea then speaks of the unfaithfulness of the nation and their pursuit of false companions. God promises to bring the nation to recovery by bringing them through the desert. They will emerge as allies of God to which he concludes with a promise to be the husband of the nation: ‘And I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, and I will espouse you with faithfulness; Then you shall know God’. (2:21)
Some time ago I took three days to do something I had never done before. I spent 72 hours alone in my family’s flat in Tel Aviv. ‘Alone’ meant that I was not exposed to meetings or long conversations with people. I spent the days in virtual silence, aside from short, necessary dialogues, and without television, music, radio or the like. My purpose for doing so came from the Jewish concept of hitbodedut – literally, seclusion. We find the value of various forms of this practice as early as 850 years ago in the writings of Maimonides.
At the times when you are by yourself, without anyone present…during these precious moments turn your mind to nothing but the thought of your relationship with God and being present before Him in truth as I have taught you….(Moreh Nebukhim, III:51)
Later, the Jewish mystics and Hassidic masters developed the idea as a mode of self-development and enhanced connection with God. When we quiet the external ‘noise’ of our lives and remove what Woody Allen called ‘mental chewing gum’, we are left only with ourselves and God. That ‘place’ is not one that we often visit.
The stillness that emerged allowed certain feelings and thoughts to come to the forefront of my mind, not all of it polite. Some of the psychological realisations were quite jarring and unnerving, but with God’s grace I weathered the storm.
The experience had greater impact on me than I had anticipated and I came away having become aware of previously unknown aspects of myself that I wanted to address.
The personal work ever since has not been easy, but I was determined to unravel, examine and address all that was required. As a result of that work I feel a greater ability to be more present with others than I had been before. If I had not immersed myself in quiet solitude I doubt that I ever would have come to the awareness that I discovered through it. I would have carried on with life as usual.
This week we begin readings from the fourth book of the Torah, Bemidbar – ‘In the desert’. The entirety of the book takes place in the wilderness where the Children of Israel had spent forty years in preparation for entering the Promised Land.
The desert was a place of solitude and its conditions refined the people.
Who is this rising out of the desert? Like pillars of smoke filled with myrrh, frankincense and all the spices of the apothecary. (Shir HaShirim, 3:6)
For four decades we wandered through a barren landscape far from any signs of civilisation. It was not a place of seeds, figs, vines and pomegranates — and no water to drink! (Num., 20:5); it was a land where no man had passed and no human sat. (Jer., 2:6) The desert sojourns tell a story of solitude. There were no others present but the nation and God.
That solitude served us well. In the wilderness we developed into a nation that was now ready for sovereignty, freedom and a real relationship with God. The desert helped us to distil our identities. Its silent backdrop created the necessary contrast that we needed to notice impurities of our character and thought. The dross that was residing within that had, for centuries been accumulating in Egyptian bondage, had been refined and lifted.
And God said to Yehoshua: ‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt’. (Josh., 5:9)
The book of Bemidbar speaks to us of the trials that untangled the spiritual, psychological and emotional knots within us that were inhibiting us from growth and true relationship.
Just as we need to be pure in our deeds we must be pure in our attributes. It is more difficult to achieve purity of attributes than of actions. For nature affects one’s character more than one’s deeds…every struggle that is waged against our natural inclination is a great battle….(Mesilat Yesharim, 12)
To the degree that we struggle with a character that is damaged we are withheld from finding true attachment.
The outrider to this issue is that we are faced with the toil of dealing with both our profound need for connection as well as our inability to fully achieve it. We attempt to get the benefit of relationship, without doing the real work both personally and with others, which is required for its success. In simple English we call it ‘cheating’.
This is the opening message in the haftara.
Rebuke your mother…and let her put away her harlotry from her face….(2:4)
Hoshea the prophet speaks on God’s behalf and tells us that we will be taken to the wilderness so that we can find rehabilitation.
Assuredly I will speak coaxingly to her and lead her through the wilderness and speak to her tenderly. From there I will give her vineyards…there she shall respond as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt. (2:16-17)
The desert is a place without external disruption and interference, a place where we can be present with ourselves and discover more of the true nature of our being. In its void there is hope of hearing the divine dialogue of our souls.
Our world is filled with complexity and unending streams of information, far more now than ever before. We struggle to detect patterns in the chaos and to find our way in the diversity. This confusion makes it more difficult for us to detect real opportunities for connection and experience in the world.
Our haftara teaches us that one of the pathways to building a strong connection with our internal selves, others and life around us is to quiet the ‘noise’ that fills our minds and thoughts and to be in stillness.
At first, what comes up may be uncomfortable and unsettling — but with courage, if we pause to listen, long held secrets from within can emerge. These whisperings raise our level of consciousness and help us map a successful way forward in our lives.
In his book Hidden in Plain Sight: The Social Structure of Irrelevance, Eviatar Zerubavel explains that our awareness lies in our ability to differentiate one item from another. Contrast enables us to notice details. But when contrast is low it becomes far more difficult to spot things. This is true both for visual situations and cognitive situations. We cannot ‘see’ thoughts and ideas when we cannot differentiate them from other information. Often, details of thought are drowned out in a great ruckus of disruptive data.
It becomes even more difficult to detect details when we always see them in the same way. What is usual becomes less detectable for us because it is taken for granted and easily ignored.
The wilderness brought quiet to the background of noise and our frailties stood out to us in the contrast it created.
The rehabilitative nature of the wilderness stands for us as a mode of growth and restoration in Torah. We are encouraged to periodically step away from the noise and listen to the songs that our souls sing to us. This need not be forty years in a desert or even 72 hours alone in Tel Aviv. But to actively make time for these precious moments allows us to be immersed in these melodies and begin to see things through new eyes. We open ourselves to possibilities and truths that otherwise evade us and hopes for new realities emerge.
The number of the people of Israel shall be like the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted; and instead of being told, ‘You are not my people’, they shall be called Children of the Living God’. (2:1)
These soul-songs are most precious and their tunes cannot be heard by any other means. To pause and listen to them takes courage. But in the end it yields beauty.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck
 Cf. Mishne Torah, Yesode haTorah, 7
 See Shene Luhot haBerit, Masekhet Yoma.
 Particularly Breslov Hassidim. See Likutei MoharaN, II, 25.
 It is also because of this that in the Saturday evening prayers we recite Ata Honantanu – the havdala prayer of differentiation – in the blessing of ‘knowledge and wisdom’ (Ata honen la’adam da’at).
1a Counting the number of names (1:1-19)
Men, 20 and up, able for war counted. God names man
from each tribe to assist Moshe and Aharon.
13 Total number: 603550, excluding Levi. (1:44-47)
14 Job of Levi tribe: Levi’im look after, camp around
and carry the Mishkan (1:48-54)
15a Arrangement of Camp: order of th march (2:1-9)
Eastside: Yehuda leads. Group contains
Yisakhar and Zevulun. Total = 186400
15b Southside: Reuven leads. Group contains
Shimon and Gad. Total = 151450 (2:10-16)
15c Levi in the middle. They camp like they
journey – in formation (2:17)
15d Westside: Efrayim leads. Group contains
Menashe and Binyamin. Total = 108100 (2:18-24)
15e Northside: Dan leads. Group contains
Asher and Naftali. Total = 157600 (2:25-31)
16 Total number excluding Levi 603550. Everyone
did as commanded (2:32-34)
17 Descendants Aharon and Moshe: Nadav and
Avihu dead, Elazar and Itamar to work (3:1-4)
18 Job of Tribe of Levi: work in Mishkan (3:5-10)
19 Levi’im chosen over firstborn; firstborn belong to
God because of ‘Egypt’ (3:11-13)
20a Levi counted and given their jobs:
Gershon 7500, westside (3:14-26)
20b Qehat (8600, south) Merari (6200, north) Moshe,
Aharon and sons (East). 22000 altogether! (3:27-39)
20c Counting of firstborn: Men from one month.
(Levi’im to replace firstborn) 22273 (3:40-43)
21 Levi in place of Reuven: 273 extra redeemed: 5
shekels each given to Aharon = 1365 shekels (3:44-51)
22 Job of Qehat: Count of 30-50year olds. Cover and
carry ready wrapped Mishkan (4:1-16)
23 A plea for Qehat: Don’t die through negligence so
only see stuff when wrapped (4:17-20)
Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS