Thirty-five years have gone by since I stood at Temple Emanuel in Rye, New York, in a light blue suit (it was the 70s, okay?), reading from this portion. It seems like a long time ago, but I anticipate that this Shabbat will seem to me like a continuation of the same moment. That is what Torah teaches us. When we live in God's presence, we realize that there is only now—and now includes Creation, Redemption, and the wilderness in between.
There is a classic midrash associated with this Torah portion that, I think, hints at this reality. The midrash tells the story of a prince who travelled from city to city. Each time he approached a new city, the people of that place would flee, treating the prince as a hostile conquerer. Finally, the prince came to a ruined city, one that already had been destroyed in battle and had nothing to lose. The people there greeted him with praise, causing the prince to say, "This city is the best of all the lands. Here I will build a home, here I will live" (Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 1:2).
The prince, of course, is God who comes to enter our lives. How shall we respond? Shall we say, "I'm too busy" or "I am not ready" or "I don't believe"? Shall we, too, flee at God's approach? Will we, too, run away in fear that we will lose something—habits we cling to, conceits about our rationality, or fantasies about being self-sufficient—if we relent and submit ourselves to a meaning beyond ourselves?
The midrash teaches that it is only when we make ourselves like a ruined city—like a wilderness—that we will let God in. It is only when we realize the emptiness of our self-absorbed habits and thought patterns that we will discover the deepest joy of being a part of a universe that is given to us as a gift. In that moment, we will see that all moments are one, and that the best thing we can do with our lives is to make it a song of praise for the Source of our being.
Bamidbar (literally, "In the wilderness") is the Torah's invitation to us to enter and become the ruined city. The rabbis found a hint of this in the creative re-reading of a verse to say, "From wilderness, there is a gift" (Numbers 21:18). The Talmud takes this verse as an instruction to "make yourself like a wilderness" to receive the gift of Torah (B. Eruvin 54a).
On this Shabbat, as I watch my little girl as the baby she was, and as the woman she yet will be, I want to feel that expansive sense of being in that moment of blessing. In such moments, we know ourselves to be a place without time, without boundaries, without anything to lose—a place fit to receive God's presence.