As a person who grew up in a relatively non-observant Jewish home, with little to no Hebrew, I used to only know the fourth book of the Torah as Numbers. This title calls to mind an orderly census-taking, a linear and rational accounting. And to be sure, there is plenty of counting in the Book of Numbers, but that tidiness is a thin veneer over the turmoil, wandering, crying out, and transformation that this chapter of sacred story presents. It was when, as an adult, I re-encountered that same tome as Sefer Bemidbar, the Book of the Wilderness, that it clicked into place for me.
The wilderness, our tradition teaches, belongs to no one (Mechilta d’Rashbi on Parshat Bemidbar). This is why the Torah was originally given in the wilderness, lest any group of people claim it belonged to them and no one else. The wilderness can be treacherous and powerful. It strips away our illusions. It cuts through our human ideas of ownership, of hierarchy, of nation and state.
In this week’s parsha, Moses and the Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness long enough for there to have been births and deaths, long enough for questions of inheritance to emerge. There is, we learn, a man who has passed away, leaving five daughters and no sons. Machla, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah approach Moses, asking why, under the current law, only men can inherit. Why is it that their branch of the family will be erased, simply because they don’t have any brothers?
Moses, in the grand tradition of teachers confronted with a query they have no idea how to answer, doesn’t say anything at all. But I imagine him saying, that is a great question. Let me get back to you. Moses turns to God, who replies more simply than we get to see almost anywhere else in the Torah, They speak justly. You should give them an inheritance.
Seen through the lens of a midrash (Sifrei on Parshat Pinchas), the women declare that “The compassion of the Divine is nothing like the compassion of human beings. Mortal creatures may have more compassion for males than females, but it is not so with the One who spoke and brought the world into being.” While human institutions and interpretations are fallible, limited by bias and power and historical context, the spirit of justice that flows through the fabric of the universe helps us reach for what is right and equitable. The God of the wilderness knows that borders are a fiction and that human laws must not become idols that we worship at the expense of human dignity.
Today, when I think of the wilderness, I think of the arid stretch of land along the U.S.’s southern border. I think of the brave people who cross it, only to be inhumanely detained and separated from their loved ones on the other side. I think of the fierce undocumented activists who risk personal safety in order to move the cause of dignity and justice forward. I think of the increasingly urgent need to see through the human limitations of prejudice to the more liberated world we hope to build.
We are, all of us, in a moral wilderness. This is a place of great danger, and also, perhaps, of possibility. May we follow the example of these women, who call out to a source of justice greater than any human institutions, trusting that it’s there even when it can’t be seen.
May we follow the example of Moses, who lets his mind be changed and his actions directed by the people most acutely impacted by injustice. May we, like Moses and the Israelites, back up our moral claims with tangible resources, donating time or money to organizations working tirelessly for the wellbeing of refugees and immigrants. And may we, like our mythic ancestors, live to see a time where the compassion of human beings reflects the radical egalitarianism of the compassion of the Divine.
Rabbi Gray Myrseth was ordained in 2017 by the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, MA, and is currently serving as Director of Youth Programs at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, CA.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson is Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.