Rabbi Wolpe - ADL Impressions

Bamidbar – Children of the Wilderness

Anti-Memoirs, the autobiography of the French writer, adventurer, and critic André Malraux, begins with a very pointed story. During the war, Malraux once escaped the Germans in the company of a parish priest. When the two cross paths years later, Malraux asks his former companion what he has learned about human nature from a decade and more of hearing personal confessions. Two things, the priest replies. First, that people are much unhappier than one would think; second, “there is no such thing as a grownup.”

The first verse of the book of Numbers is: “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.” In giving the book its Hebrew name, Bamidbar (in the wilderness), this opening sentence reminds us that the Torah is a tale of the wilderness.

The setting conveys the first lesson of Malraux’s priest, that the world is itself often a place of unhappiness. Judaism is a tradition to be lived and observed amid all of life’s difficulties and harshness. Even when the Israelites enter the land, they won’t find a perfect, blissful environment. They must be prepared.

Why do we need so rich and wise a tradition? Here we come to the second lesson of Malraux’s priest: there are no grownups.

The language of Scripture testifies to this message by consistently calling the people “the children of Israel.” That is true in a literal sense: they are the descendants of Jacob, who is also called Israel. Also, they act like children: rebelling, refusing, ungrateful, self-centered, often immature—and thus constantly in need of education and moral guidance.

In focusing on the infancy of Israel’s collective history, the Torah tells us that all human beings are children of the wilderness. Seen in this light, the book of Numbers is a story of moral education, and one whose lessons can be applied to anyone’s quest for self-betterment.

From the moment humanity steps out of Eden, the Torah makes clear its unremitting realism about our condition, telling us time and again that pain is inevitable and that growth is at once demanding and essential. In the book of Numbers we are also shown the conditions that make the journey bearable and sacred: the existence of a map through the wilderness that we call the Torah and a Guide, our Creator, to point the way.