This week’s Torah portion finds us bamidbar: in the wilderness.
I have a feeling some of us in this very room are feeling a little bit bamidbar right now, and it’s a complicated feeling: the joy of getting to the other side; the gratitude for freedom; the fear of a life of new and as-yet-unknown responsibilities; the sadness of letting go of a place we have come to know.
In the wilderness, there are few landmarks. There are no roadmaps. It’s a place of sand and rock, mountain and—we hope—oasis. It’s beautiful and it’s scary. It is wide open and expansive. It makes us feel free, and it makes us feel small.
For the people Israel, wilderness was a place of bitter complaint—“Were there no graves in Egypt, that you brought us here to die in this wilderness!?” (Exodus 14:11). And wilderness was a place of profound nurture and care and love—with the pillars of cloud and fire to guide the community, with the manna to nourish them, with God’s presence in the Tent of Meeting, always at the center of the camp.
< At our Torah study this week, I asked what wilderness means to you. Two responses stood out in apparent contradiction. “Foreign,” said one person. But another person offered, “Home.”
Indeed, the midbar is both utterly foreign and utterly familiar. It is a place of wandering and it is a place that somehow feels like home.
And so for many of us—whether we are graduating this coming week or headed out for summer road trips and internships, whether we are returning to this place or flying across an ocean for a semester abroad, whether we are culminating a long-term project or conceiving a new endeavor—we are all on the cusp of a wilderness. And we are wondering, Will it feel forgeign? Will I be at home?
And I think it isn’t just the place or the experience we’re worrying about. It’s our very selves. Will I be foreign or at home? Will I be welcomed? Will they get me? Will I be recognized for who I really am, what I really have to offer? Will the inhabitants of this wilderness come to truly know me?
The poet Kadya Molodowsky writes:
I am a wandering girl.
My heart is practiced in longing.
And when the day eats up the dew of the night,
I tuck up the small white curtain from my window pane,
And look upon a new street.
There lies coiled up
In a little corner of my heart
Such a singular, trembling idea:
Maybe no one here will love me.
Maybe no one here will want to know me!
But God forbid!
Like the threat of rain always hanging in the air
And falling in unexpected abundance on the earth,
That’s how each new city is for me,
Each new place.
And I don’t know how manifold my flesh is.
Every year a new ring
Grows in me, as on a tree,
I am mazily woven of rising and setting.
I am a wandering girl,
My heart is practiced in longing.
It is our longing for something more that brings us to the wilderness: our longing for freedom, our longing for community, our longing to escape slavery and idolatry, our longing to make deep and abiding commitments, our longing for the responsibility to use our free will to decide how we will conduct our lives, our longing for the Torah that will guide us to the promised lands we will someday reach. We long for something more and we find ourselves bamidbar, in the wilderness.
And here in the wilderness, feeling so very small against the wide expanse of the desert sky, we wonder, “Will they love me? Will they want to know me?”
When the Moabite Ruth finds welcome, acceptance, and even love in the Israelite Boaz, she marvels, מַדּוּעַ מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ לְהַכִּירֵנִי וְאָנֹכִי נָכְרִיָּה: —“How is it that I have found favor in your eyes, that you recognize me, though I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10).
Lehakir, to recognize, to know, to be familiar. And nochriya, foreign, Other. Both stemming from the same root. Opposite and intimately linked. At home. Out of place. Ruth the Moabite—the quintessential outsider in the Torah—finds acceptance. She is recognized among Israel.
Will they know you? Will they love you? Out there, in that vast wilderness?
I pray that they will, and that you will each be able to marvel, Here I am, a newcomer and a foreigner,in a new wilderness, finding home.
[Molodowsky's poem appears in The Torah: A Women's Commentary.]