Torah Reading for Week of May 20-26, 2018
"Lessons of the Midbar"
We Jews have often been called “people of the book,” but perhaps a better appellation would be “people of words.” A people forged in the wilderness, the midbar—a Hebrew word whose root, l’daber, means “to speak,”—a people defined by Aseret ha-Dibrot, The Ten Speakings of an invisible and awesome Divine mouth, our Torah unfolds as a saga of the spoken word: “va-yidaber YHVH el moshe leymor…,” “and the Infinite spoke to/through Moses, saying…,” “va-yidaber moshe el b’nai yisrael…,” “and Moses spoke to the children of Israel….”
In my rare and precious times in desert wilderness—in Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea, in the high desert of New Mexico, in the Anza-Borrego desert east of San Diego, in the Panamint Valley just outside of Death Valley—what’s been palpable and deeply healing for me has been the silence. A rich, thick silence that lies upon the land like a cloak, in which any minute sound seems to echo for miles; a silence shattered at times by the wailing of wind and storm, inchoate, like wild beasts rampaging through the valleys and dry river beds.
So how, in our tradition, does midbar, this wild place of palpable silence and nature’s unpredictable blasts, become transmuted into m’daber, a mishkan built from the sayings, speakings, pronouncements of Divine Presence, channeled through the throat of Moses? And how, over the course of the Israelites’ wilderness sojourn, does this pristine space fill to overflowing with so many words of confusion, doubt, complaint, conflict, pleading, punishment, forgiveness, and threat of further punishment?
In her recent book, Moses, A Human Life, the great contemporary darshan, Dr. Avivah Zornberg, presents the voice of Moses—that great transmitter of God’s words, whose own speech was deficient, impaired in some way—as a harking back to “tehom,” “the murmuring deep,” the rumbling, inchoate flood of sound that precedes Creation, a buzzing, vibrating ocean of sound that contains all possible human vocalizations. Inarticulate, at times requiring translation by his brother Aaron, the voice of Moses, holds the full, raw range of pre-verbal feeling. And it is precisely this voice, the voice beneath words, beyond even silence, that God needs to convey Godself to this ragtag bunch of erstwhile slaves, these descendants of Jacob the trickster, of Yisrael, the angel-wrestler.
For, in the human mouth, well-formed words are often not trustworthy. Some blockage, some distortion often intervenes between the true intent and its expression, between the raw emotion, the deep intuition, and its verbal shaping. We see this in the current travesty of our public discourse. Misunderstanding blossoms, explodes into anger and hurt, and freezes into intransigent opposition.
This week’s parshah, Naso, which unfolds fairly close to the beginning of what, yet unbeknownst to them, will become the Israelites’ forty-year sojourn bamidbar, in the wilderness, includes the extremely troubling description of a “trial by water” imposed upon a wife suspected by her husband of infidelity, the sotah. The scenario described here is clearly one of broken communication, something sensed but not spoken, for, without concrete evidence, the jealousy of the husband is aroused against his mate: “…a man could have lain with her carnally, but it was hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she became secluded and could have been defiled, but there was no witness against her, and she had not been forced, and a spirit of jealousy had passed over him…” (Numbers 5:13-14, my italics).
The unlucky woman is to be brought to the Tabernacle and made to stand, her head uncovered, before the High Priest and before God. A “meal offering of jealousies” (minkhat k’na’ot) is brought by her husband, and she is made to drink from a vessel of holy water, mixed with earth from the floor of the Tabernacle and seasoned with curses, inscribed on a scroll and then scraped into the water. If, upon drinking the cursed water, her “belly distends and thigh collapses,” she is proven guilty and cursed; if not she is exonerated.
Of course, being forced to submit to this low-tech lie detector test would’ve been extremely humiliating for any woman. And though the “bitter waters” contained only a little earth and ink, the destructive power of her husband’s mistrust, or of her own guilt, if she had, in fact, slept with another, intensified by the pressure of this very public shaming, might well have caused the woman so accused to physically collapse, to become, in Torah’s words, “a curse amid her people.”
As disturbing as this description of the sotah is, can we not in some way see foreshadowed here, in microcosm, the distortions, the hiddennesses, the half-truths, untruths, and unkept promises—the repeated failures of words—that will plague the Israelite people throughout their desert sojourn, evinced both in the evolving relationship between HaShem, the Divine husband, and Israel, his reluctant, often terrified bride, and also in the people’s relationships with Moses, their leader, and with one another?
Perhaps the truth of any relationship rests not in the multitudes of words that will inevitably be shared, but in the attentive stratum of silence underlying those words, and in the tehom—the murmuring, groaning, cooing, crying, burbling resonance of shared souls—beneath the silence. Perhaps the word “midbar” points us not to a place of everyday speech, but to all that underlies and surrounds our speaking—to the great, cosmic hum that births Creation and to the matrix of silence out of which words arise. As Avivah Zornberg so eloquently puts it, “In our deepest aloneness, we listen for the elemental in each other’s voice—which, strangely, is also the particular sound of the other. He is unknown to me, it is her unknownness that I draw on, to help me be at home in the alien elements of my own world.” (Moses, A Human Life; p. 55)
As rabbis, cantors, chaplains, spiritual directors, and spiritual friends to one another, we are charged with the challenging task of conveying wisdom, comfort, remembrance, and sometimes challenge and rebuke through the tricky medium of words. How essential then that we steep ourselves in the matrix of silence and the unformed sounds of the human heart that prefigure language—that we privilege listening and the expectant space between breaths, not jumping reflexively to speech, which can so polarize, so alienate. Truth, ever elusive in our speaking, sometimes shines through most radiantly in our silences, in the simple loving act of our listening.