I used to believe God wanted to free the Israelites from enslavement. I realize now that God is hoping for something much deeper. God’s goal is to take an oppressed people and heal them. God envisions a world where victim and perpetrator are no longer enemies and, rather than cycle between the two, we can put down our swords and welcome in the other. Sefer Bamidbar is a guide for us. It is a tool to teach us what is required to not only free ourselves but to heal ourselves. And it starts with speech. The root of the word midbar, is dalet bet resh: to speak.
In the beginning of this journey, the oppressed Israelites have no voice; the oppression was so great they were silenced. The Netivot Shalom, in his drash on Pesach, describes the Israelites as enslaved down to their essence. Their enslavement had taken over their minds. They had no individual autonomy. They were the fetus, in the womb of Mitzrayim, completely dependent on their mother and they were blind to their own oppression. The Slonimer goes on to teach that God had to come to B’nei Yisrael and helped them to groan. And it is the Peh-Sach, the speaking mouth, that becomes the path out of oppression. And here we are, arriving in Sefer Bamidbar, the book of speech.
Sefer Bamidbar starts off hopeful. Through the book of Exodus, God acts as the good parent. First God helps them to see their abuse and causes them to cry out. Through hearing them and saving them from their abuser, God lays the foundation for trust. Slowly God helps them to develop what is labeled by psychologists as object constancy. With the episode of the Golden Calf, God recognizes that the Israelites are experiencing an insecure attachment, as they quickly come to believe that Moses and God have abandoned them. According to Rashi, God provides them with a transitional object, like a baby blanket, in the form of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, that will allow them to feel God’s presence at all times. God hopes that this will allow them to heal. In Vayiqra God continues to strengthen them, teaching them the tools to develop God’s presence within. The holiness does not have to live “out there”; the holiness can reside within each one of them. God hopes this structure of intentional living will give them the tools to feel connected at all times, deepening their recognition of God’s presence in their lives and creating a sense of object permanence so that they will be able to function in the world without God’s constant presence. But it is not until Sefer Bamidbar that God encourages their autonomy.
This book begins with an individual accounting of the people. The Israelites can finally speak in words and can now develop their individual stories. They are no longer grouped into one category, now they can form personal identities. And although God follows all the steps of a good parent, the children are not ready. Their trauma is too great. Externally they have been freed, they stand in a place of privilege that they have never experienced. They can now identify the injustices in the world but they are still operating from their oppressed parts. The ability to see injustice is a gift of the privileged, that is reserved for the few, and one that the Israelites never experienced while living within the systemic oppression of Mitzrayim. But if the privileged are not healed from their trauma their actions can be dangerous. Ultimately physical freedom is only the first step, to truly heal one must go within. And this might be why Bamidbar also means, In the Wilderness. God recognizes that the people can only come to true freedom if they enter into the unknown, the wilderness of their beings, and find the parts of themselves that were hurt and heal them. God as parent can only do so much, they must now parent themselves, hold those hurt parts, listen to their stories and free them from the internal abuse that lives within.
And yet their trauma is so great they can not look within, they fear their depths. Like the victims of abuse they enter nostalgia, they wish for a return to an imagined past that was comfortable in its constancy, where all of their physical needs were met and they were not allowed to go within. This ability to go within is also born of privilege. The oppressed are struggling for their existence; they do not have the means to examine their inner lives.
Although God attempts to teach them a new way they are unable to do the work required and this is clearly seen in the story of the spies. The spies wear the lenses of enslavement. As they enter the land of milk and honey, all they can see is their own projected fear. They see themselves as grasshoppers in a land of giants. In this moment God recognizes that this people born of oppression, brought into a privileged state, will not be able to complete the biblical journey. When oppression lies deep in the belly, when we believe we are stronger but our unconscious still rules, we are not truly free. This is the greatest danger of all. When we have power born from an oppressive state, we act from fear, resulting in further alienation rather than connectedness or, in its worst form, oppression of others. God recognizes that the next part of the plan can not work unless we are free from our victim mentality. Thus, God decrees that this generation will not go into the Promised Land. This people, that can only look out of their fear stained lenses, and see the giants in the land of milk and honey–this people, that can not see their new reality, can not fulfill the biblical imperative of loving the stranger because they can not see themselves as anything but enslaved.
May we be blessed to wear the lenses of healing that allow us to look within and without so that the stranger is completely integrated into our being and the other is ourself.
Esther is a rabbinical student in the ALEPH Ordination Program who will receive smicha in January 2018. She is currently the Director of Family Engagement at Congregation Shaare Zedek in NY.