As we begin Parashat Bamidbar – the first portion in the book of Numbers – we read:
God spoke (vaydaber) to Moses in the wilderness (bamidbar).
I’ve often been interested in the fact that the Hebrew verb “to speak” and the word for “wilderness” share a common root: d-b-r. It suggests an important connection between wilderness and speech – more specifically divine speech.
There are, in fact, numerous Biblical descriptions of Godly encounter that take place in a deep wilderness setting. Before Moses discovers the burning bush, for instance, he drives his flock “achar hamidbar” – “beyond the wilderness.” Not long after the Exodus, the Israelites experience a communal revelation at Sinai after they had “encamped in the wilderness” (Exodus 19:2) And in 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah encounters the still, small voice of God after traveling “bamidbar derech yom” – “a day’s journey into the wilderness.”
It isn’t difficult to understand why the desert habitat is considered sacred by so many Western, Eastern and indigenous spiritual traditions. At first glance, the wilderness might seem to be a wasteland – a “God-forsaken” environment unable to support life. But desert biomes are actually vital, and dynamic ecosystems teeming with a wide array of geological variety as well as significant plant and animal biodiversity. In other words, the desert invites us to look beyond its seemingly barren surface to discover the life that dwells deep within.
We also might regard the wilderness as more symbolic terrain – an existential place far from the “noise” of culture, artifice and ego. Indeed, this form of spiritual experience is available even to non-desert dwellers: a mindfulness or way of life that seeks to strip away the outer layers of self so we may discover, like the ancient Israelites, the divine word that dwells at the elemental core.
In the end, the journey into the wilderness is one that leads both inward and outward: to the outermost reaches of experience and the innermost reaches of the human soul. These are the places where the voice of God may truly be heard.