There are two words that can be drawn from the Hebrew name of this week’s parashah, Be-midbar: midbar (desert) – the physical and metaphorical wilderness in which the story takes place – and medaber (speaks), as it is in the desert that God first addresses the Jewish people as a nation.
The parashah opens with “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.” Deliberately chosen, this phrase calls out the setting in which God speaks and emphasizes the timing.
At this point, the Jews begin their 40-year journey through the desert and, for the first time in more than 200 years, they are free from foreign rule. They have, however, no idea what to do with their newfound freedom, and they drift – physically, emotionally and spiritually.
God’s timing for when to communicate is purposeful. In times of stability and predictability, people are tempted to remain stagnant. It is, however, in moments of weakness and uncertainty that individuals look for guidance and are open to change.
God commands Moses to conduct a census that starts a process of numbering and organizing the B’nai Yisra’el for military and priestly duties. Within the wilderness, God creates structure and hierarchy. Most importantly, a mindset is developed for the B’nai Yisra’el to view themselves as part of something larger, with shared belonging and a common purpose.
The B’nai Yisra’el built structures and systems in order to face the uncertainty of lonely, desolate conditions. We must remember this lesson when facing our own personal “wilderness,” whether navigating unexpected trauma or facing despair. Like the Jews of the desert, we must find the courage to make a change by listening to those with an outstretched arm, building a new framework and remembering that we are part of a larger people.