This is the Petrified Forest National Park in Northern Arizona:
It’s a magical place– though not for any obvious reason. Really, all it is is a 230 square mile park which is almost entirely empty, except for the petrified trees which lived there during the Triassic period, 225 million years ago. As a kid, I used to visit the park, and I remember distinctly the complete and utter eeriness of getting out of the car and hearing nothing; Not a sound– not even the wind on most days. The absolute unadulterated quiet of the Petrified Forest is remarkable, partially because it is such a rarity. One doesn’t even realise that life is quite so noisy until finding themselves in a place that is really, truly, quiet.
This Shabbat we begin reading the Book of Numbers, known in Hebrew by its first significant word: baMidbar, literally, ‘In the Desert.’ The desert features so prominently in the Torah, the wilderness which the Israelites escape to and in which they receive the Torah and the revelation from God which we are still grappling with today. Every time that we talk about that wilderness, it is referred to by the word Midbar– so naturally, we need to better understand such a common and significant feature of the Torah.
Those who have taken my Hebrew classes (sign ups for next September will be out soon!) will know that nearly all Hebrew nouns are based upon verbs, as verbs provide the backbone to the language. The astute observer will even be able to pick out the three-letter root in the word Midbar. That root, D.V.R, is a common one, and it means ‘to speak’. The construction here is a typical way of making a noun out of a root, and it follows a certain pattern. For instance: Mishmar (‘a prison’, SH.M.R means ‘to guard’), Mikhtav (‘a letter’, K.T.V means ‘to write’), and Mafte’ach (‘a key’, P.T.CH means ‘to open’). So a mishmar is a place where guarding happens, a mikhtav is a place where writing happens, and a mafte’ach is a place/thing through which opening happens.
If that’s all true, then we can deduce what a midbar might be: a place where speaking happens. For the Torah, for Judaism, the desert is ‘The Speaking Place’. It is in the absolute quiet, the perfect solitude, the utter tranquility of a desert where no noise is heard that one is able to hear the voice of God.
As we move this weekend from Parashat BaMidbar to the celebration of Shavu’ot on Sunday and Monday (with our Tikkun Saturday night), we should think about how we can find a place where we can hear. We must seek out our own midbar, our own ‘speaking place’ if we hope to hear the voice of God and the sound of revelation, which alone can pierce through the silence.
Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Samea’ch,