This Shabbat, we begin the book of Numbers, Bamidbar. Bamidbar means “in the wilderness.” Here we resume the narrative of the long sojourn through the midbar– a narrative which began in the book of Exodus and then was interrupted by the book of Leviticus, filled with rules and regulations to guide the Israelites through the wilderness and ultimately in their future society in the Promised Land.
I’ve been thinking about what the wilderness represents and what it might mean for us in our current moment. One might consider the 40 years of desert wandering to be a gestation period in preparation for the true birth of our people. Why such a long gestation, and why did it have to take place in the wilderness? What, if as the old New Yorker Magazine cartoon said, Moses had not been (like a typical guy!) too stubborn to just ask for directions? Without this circuitous route, full of anxiety, fear, and doubt, could the Israelites have been birthed into the people they needed to be? And is there something intrinsic to the wilderness that enables the Israelites to receive Torah at Mount Sinai (which we will commemorate on Thursday night/Friday of next week), and enter into a covenant to be guided always by its principles of justice and compassion?
When we experience a crisis, we are stripped bare of a lot of the “clutter” that takes up space in the landscape of our lives. In the case of this pandemic, much of the clutter of the busyness of lives full of activities and obligations has been stripped away. Even if we are still quite busy, there are many ways in which life has been pared down to the bare necessities. We’ve been forced to simplify. The anchors and signposts have been cast away and what is left is an expanse– a wilderness— disorienting in its openness. There is a new kind of attention that we can experience in this obligatory simplicity. When we have more space around us, even if the space is unsettling in its vastness and unfamiliarity, what can we notice that we otherwise overlooked?
The poet Mary Oliver wrote in her poem The Summer Day: “…I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention…” I believe that attention is a form of prayer – and that this time of living through a global pandemic with all of its restrictions actually invites us, paradoxically, into a wide expanse which can help us pay attention in new ways. During the past 10 weeks, like many of you, I’ve taken more frequent walks in nature, where it is easier to stay at a safe distance from others. I love to take photos of trees, flowers, clouds, and bodies of water on my walks, and I’ve come to view this as a spiritual practice. I recently decided to start a new instagram account dedicated to these photos called @attentionisprayer. Please follow me there if you enjoy nature photos, and share your own with me! In another poem, Praying, Mary Oliver writes: “It doesn’t have to be the blue Iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.” Did the wilderness provide the silence into which the voice of God could speak? What can we hear or see in the wilderness in which we find ourselves now, and what wisdom can it reveal to us?