Parashat B’midbar 5783

17 May 2023 – 26 Iyyar 5783

By Rabbi Judith Rosen-Berry


 “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai” (Numbers 1:1-2)

“With exemplary regularity the Jew chooses to set out for the desert, to go toward a renewed word that has become his origin …  a wandering word is the word of God. It has for its echo the word of the wandering people. No oasis for it, no shadow, no peace. Only the immense, thirsty desert, only the book of this thirst … (Edmond Jabès, The Book to the Book: 166-7)

The Egyptian-French poet Edmond Jabès (1912-1991) noted the connection between d-b-r, ‘word’ /davar, and m-d-b-r, ‘wilderness’/midbar; a connection for him that created a constant grappling with the wilderness experience as an essential and continuing feature of what it meant to be a Jew, and the centrality of the inter-woven relationship between the wilderness, words [the book] and contemporary Jewish identity.

On numerous occasions, in his written work, in interviews, lectures and recorded conversations with friends, Jabès always refers to the book as: “… the desert [wilderness], that infinity where there is nothing,” and explained that “It’s fundamentally the white page. My questioning, my obsession with the book, [torah] may very well have been born from that white page, which becomes written … [but crucially] – to think of a book in advance, as a [known] project, is to limit it. The book for me should be without limits, like the desert” (Jabès, The Book to the Book).

For Jabès, the wilderness – with its unearthly silence and emptiness – was the only condition in which the words – that are always becoming Torah, could be heard. And as a consequence – we are, Jabès implied, forever a wilderness people, never static, always searching for that something that eludes us, never feeling that we have reached our destination, or the culminating point of what the words heard or spoken in the wilderness allude to. And so it is, that just as Torah is the word-as-wilderness and the wilderness-as-word – (d-b-r /m-d-b-r) Jews too are formed like the words that we received in the desert. We are always becoming who we are, in a place that is not a place, in a place that is somewhere unbounded, an in-between, which has neither a starting point nor a destination, a place without limitation. Jabès likes to say that we are living, and are always being formed in a book/wilderness, that is at once both full, and yet incomplete, laden with meaning, and yet lacking meaning, closed and yet endlessly interpretable.  In this sense then, perhaps, our ‘place’ is not only to sojourn in the book/wilderness, but in a restlessly rest book of questions, not answers. And this is important.

Jabès understood that without the question, there was no future. It is not, as some people think – that questioning destroys the book (or the people), but actually, it is the very thing that prolongs them both. The danger rather, lies in the ‘answer’. Jabès recognized that ‘answers’ embodied a certain form of power: a power that often pushes too hastily toward closure, a power that claims to have already arrived, that seals the way things are, that cannot imagine that something else might be the case. The book that is a ‘question’ though, is a form of non-power, but a subversive type of non-power; a power that confounds and disrupts, that renders ambiguous any form of totalizing meaning.

To be Jewish then, is perhaps also to be like an unanswerable question; a question that can or should never be closed, or whose closure is not already determined, but is always ‘becoming’. We are a process – like writing, reading or translating, or interpreting – who we are, can never be completed. And it is precisely this irritating, engaging, pleasurable, instructive indeterminacy – this engagement without conclusion – that encourages our active and on-going construction of liberal Jewish identity today. This is our authenticity.

Is it possible then that there is no beginning and no end to who or what we are? That there is rather, just like the word as wilderness – a constant opening (to new interpretations), which if right, is an extraordinary idea because it grants us the freedom to create new possibilities for ourselves – new readings, and new modes of understanding beyond any sort of restrictive or imposed closure. In that sense then perhaps, we stand ‘positively’ suspended between that which is written and that which remains to be written. Which enables both the word as wilderness – and us-[liberal]-Jews – to become the site and source of a vital freedom that we must never surrender whatever the temptation, to something possibly more definitive, more bounded – or even safe. We, like the word as wilderness, are not to be defined, or restricted – we are instead “without limits, like the desert” (Jabès, The Book of Questions), and as a consequence we are a community that is ever always moving towards not only an articulation, but a celebration of the boundlessness of [liberal] Jewish identity and belonging.


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