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Midbar: What and Why?

Parshat Bamidbar

This week we begin reading Sefer Bamidbar. As such, it would seem only logical to clearly define the Hebrew word “midbar.” We might think that the exercise is a rather foolish one as most people know very well what the word means. It is, indeed, quite elementary. And yet, I believe that many of us translate the word as meaning, simply, “desert,” and we would not be completely wrong—but we would be somewhat imprecise. When we imagine a desert, we conjure up the vision of a dry, unfertile, rocky and sandy wasteland—which it often is. After all, the navi Yishayahu prophesies that “asim midbar l’agam mayim,” “I will make the midbar into a pond of water” (Yishayahu 41:18).

Nonetheless, a midbar is not always a desert. A better definition for the word, rather, is “wilderness,” a “wild” area that is not yet inhabited. It may be “deserted” and infertile but it also can be a lush forest, a fertile mountain or any as yet unsettled area. The significance of understanding the precise definition of the word is not simply because it is the name of the parsha but also because it appears in our haftarah as well, and when studying the Tanach, each and every word can serve as keys to uncovering deeper meanings and important lessons.

The navi Hoshea opens the haftarah (2: 1-21) with encouraging prophecies of how the population of Israel would increase drastically as the nation unites, returns to her land and to her God. The closing pesukim of this reading are ones of optimism and hope as well, telling of how Hashem will bring an era of peace and tranquility and will create a brit of “betrothal” to Israel. In between these optimistic verses, however, the haftarah is filled with a condemnation of the people for their abandonment of God and their wayward behavior that led to the spread of idolatry. It is following that condemnation that the prophet says “v’hilachtiha hamidbar,” that God will lead the people out to the “midbar.” In this context, taking the people out to the “midbar” refers to sending them into galut. The Radak connects this prophecy to that of Yechezkel HaNavi (20: 35) who states that Hashem will take the nation out to “midbar ha’amim,” the “wilderness of the nations,” where they would remain exiled and where He would judge the people.

Rav Ya’acovson, in his classic work “Chazon HaMikra,” regards this approach of the Radak as one that illuminates for us the purpose of a “midbar” experience. It is, he suggests, a pre-geula period, during which God will judge and purify Israel in preparation for redemption. Indeed, as Hoshea tells us in the haftarah “V’natati lah et krameha misham,” that only after the midbar experience will Hashem reward Israel and allow them to partake of the fruits of the land to which they will return.

The Rambam in his “Moreh Nevuchim” explains this very idea, teaching that it was the challenges Israel had to meet during their midbar experience that prepared them for the conquest of the land. As he points out, when the Israelites left Egypt Hashem feared they would flee when confronted with a military challenge. But, by the end of their 40-year sojourn in the midbar they had formed an army and successfully conquered the powerful alliances of Canaan.

Having just celebrated Yom Yerushalayim this past week, it is a good time to re-think our concept of midbar. The midbar is not simply a dry, barren desert where Bnei Yisrael were fated to remain for a prolonged period as punishment for their sins. Rather, it is also a wilderness of galut where we are to be refined and educated, and, thereby, prepared for our ultimate redemption.


Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.

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