For Avivah Zornberg, the fundamental problem that troubles the text of Bamidbar is what counts — what is truly meaningful and real — in human life. There is no question that God (or Pharaoh or Moses) is powerful, and can upend our lives. But what is in doubt is whether God really loves us, does God care about us? Can we trust God? Or would we better off with Pharaoh? The Wilderness provides the empty space for these doubts to emerge and take form in language, as it also allows faith and trust to take shape. In Egypt, the people could experience pain, terror, and be astounded by their liberation. It is in the Wilderness that they must learn to speak and to articulate their fears, hatreds, jealousies, and dreams.
Bamidbar 1:2 (Robert Alter, trans.)
Count the heads of all …
Count the heads: literally “lift the heads”
The forty-year midbar journey was intended as a difficult odyssey of self-understanding , a reconnaissance mission into the human heart .
God gives the Torah ; now the issue is of the human reception of the gift.
Their specific complaints convey a continual questioning whether anything counts ; whether God’s promise — or , more radically , whether language itself — applies to anything .
the tone is set for the bewilderments of uncertainty, denial, and mistrust; for a bitter dissolution of meaning where certainty is not to be had.
At heart , the issue about God is not about His power to bring them into the Land but about His love, His desire to bring them into full being .
It is only by recognizing and hearing their own anger, uncertainty, and hate, that the people can find rebuild their capacity for love and trust.
Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 2:5 (Avivah Zornberg, trans.)
“And he drove the flock to the furthest wilderness” ( Exodus 3 :1 ) : R . Joshua said , Why was he in pursuit of the wilderness ? He saw that Israel were raised up from the wilderness , as it is said : “Who is this who rises up from the wilderness? ” (Songs 3:6 ) . They had the manna from the wilderness, and the quails, and the well, and the Tabernacle, and the Divine Presence: priesthood, kingship, and the Clouds of Glory. … Wilderness [midbar] is , in essence , language [dibbur] . [ Ein midbar ella dibbur . ] As it is said , “Your lips are like a scarlet thread, your mouth [midbarech] is lovely” ( Songs 4:3 ).
What is about the Wilderness that raises the people? In Hebrew, wilderness and language share the same root, which is punned in the Midrash. How is language like the Wilderness? Isn’t language the opposite of a Wilderness? Language is a human construction, while the Wilderness is the opposite of a built world. What is the poetic allusion quoted from the Song of Songs intended to suggest?