A friend and her family walked by my house on the first day of Sukkot and we chatted for a few minutes. Somehow, the topic of my yearning to learn Daf Yomi like my mom came up. My friend’s father, partially joking, responded that he would share part of the day’s daf so I could feel like I had learned it as well.
The piece that he shared included this pasuk, which I quote, with thanks to Sefaria.
״על פי ה׳ יחנו ועל פי ה׳ יסעו״ (במדבר ט :כ)
“According to the commandment of the Lord they remained encamped, and according to the commandment of the Lord they journeyed.” (Numbers 9:20)
Laughing, I responded that the pasuk quoted about “midbar life” reminds me of our COVID-19 situation. My friend and I, both teachers, know that going forward, some days Hashem will say “go teach at school” and some days He will say “go teach at home.” Our students will also weave their life in and out of quarantine. We both realize that we face much uncertainty as we go back to school after the chagim.
As I reflected about the pasuk above, I was brought back to a discussion regarding the translation of the word מדבר, which I believe will elucidate an important lesson that we can take with us into the new year.
Hebrew has some consistent and reliable structures, one of which is that a מ as a noun prefix, with a chirik vowel, means “place of.” For example, מכתב (michtav), a place of כתב, writing, is otherwise known as a letter. A court is therefore, משפט, (mishpat), the place of שופט (shofet), judgement. Even more famous, the word מקדש (mikdash), means place, holiness.
To understand what מדבר (midbar) means, we first need to understand what דבר, DVaR, means. In Bereishit 43:15, Bnei Yaakov, at his request, take (לקח) both Binyamin and money and then leave to return to Yosef in Mitzrayim. Rashi on that pasuk explains that in Hebrew, לקח is used for taking money and people. Rashi goes on to explain that in Aramaic, נסיב is used to mean taking an item by hand, whereas דבר is used to describe taking a person, or persuading him with words. Anyone one of us can attest to the truth that taking an object or trying to convince a human to go anywhere are two completely different encounters, and Aramaic differentiates the experience with unique verbs.
While Aramaic and Hebrew as languages may be perceived as distinct, their language usage is indistinguishable. Therefore, the meaning of דבר in Aramaic is the same in Hebrew, rendering מדבר to mean a place of being led by words. The midbar which the Jewish people traversed after they left Egypt refers to a training ground and transformative experience in which Bnei Yisrael learned to follow Hashem’s word so as to build their trust, thereby preparing them to enter the promised land and live out their destiny as Hashem’s chosen nation.
How did Bnei Yisrael gain trust and build this necessary relationship in the midbar? By receiving only what they need for the day to sustain themselves through the daily portion of man and by not being too comfortable or entrenched in their surroundings. To quote again from the pasuk above, “According to the commandment of Hashem, they remained encamped, and according to the commandment of Hashem they journeyed.”
We live in a society and time when we are overscheduled. Our calendars signal our plans to us frequently, insistently. Two of the many glaring concerns for both adults and children of this generation are being both completely over-scheduled, believing we can control everything, and anxiety, knowing that, actually, we can control almost nothing. Around Purim, one outcome of the challenges and tragedies that surrounded us required us to delete much of what we had scheduled and figure out how to grope blindly into our future. Both children and adults were lost because we had no schedule. We had to wait and see. We had to go back to trusting and hoping and praying, while we stayed safe at home, even though we did not know what the future held.
Our hectic holiday schedule this year, like every year, wraps up with the Sukkot fanfare of living outside and shaking the arbah minim together. Eating, playing games, reading and hanging out, and possibly sleeping in our sukkah—all of which bring us back to those מדבר days of trust and calm when we as a nation did not have a schedule or a plan. We lived day to day. We were learning to be led by Hashem, Who we trusted to feed and shelter us. We shake the arba minim, representing the different experiences of diverse Jews, to show unity in spite of differences. Then, the holiday season culminates in the joyous conclusion as we dance together with Hashem’s Torah, representing our faith and trust in Hashem and our unity as Am Yisrael.
This is the beautiful lesson that we bring with us into our new cycle of Torah readings. More than ever, our children need us to show them how to be led by Hashem. We travel and camp by the word of Hashem. Some days we may travel to school and sometimes we will camp at home, both possibly without much warning. Yes, this may present challenges and difficulties, but we are the Jewish people. We have been through the midbar before. There is something actually healthy and calming about not knowing what will come next and accepting it with the trust that only comes from knowing how to let go and be led by Hashem. Perhaps, (can I hope and dream?) through traversing this very real midbar, we can relearn to trust Hashem, know how to follow His lead and model this for our children, thereby meritting being led back to Eretz Yisrael for a geula shleima.
Rochie Sommer is head of math, science and STEM at The Idea School.