It has been a week of wilderness, appropriate as this morning we begin reading the book of the wilderness, Bamidbar. It has been a week of chaos. A week of wandering with a destination in mind but seemingly no clear path to reaching it. A week of extremes – extreme changes in weather 90 degrees one day, 45 degrees the next. A week of sun beating down and hail driven into rain drenched grass. A week of gracious welcome and kindness and a week of terror and death. A week in which the Pope was gifted with a bound copy of the speeches of Martin Luther King and a black man was lynched here in Maryland. A week in which the news of 34 dead immigrants, mostly children, who drowned while escaping from Libya is entirely overlooked on account of a terror attack in Manchester England which killed 22 and injured more than 60 adults in children.
If that is not wilderness, I don’t know what is. Our week and our world sinks into the sands of a wilderness, bleak, overwhelming with peace and home hovering like a mirage in the distance.
The children of Israel too enter this place of chaos and of extremes. A place is so significant that it even has a group of people dedicated exclusively towards to. A group whose personal experiences are meant to fade into the past. They are called dor ha midbar, the generation of the wilderness. And over the 38 years of the Book of the Wilderness, Bamidbar, their generation will pass.
The passing of the generations is seen as a natural phenomenon in our society. A generation – about the length of time it takes for a child to be born, grow up, become an adult, and have a child of their own. This group of people experience the same significant events within a given period of time.
Dor ha midbar, the desert generation. Those Israelites who survived Egyptian slavery only to wander through the wilderness for 40 years before dying prior to their entry into the land of Israel. The significant events they shared were slavery and Exodus from Egypt, receiving the Torah at Sinai, and building the mishkan. Like many other generations, the generation of the wilderness got a bad reputation. They were often accused, not unfairly, of having a bad attitude – they complained a lot, they looked backwards instead of forwards – but like generations before them and after them, it wasn’t really their fault. They were shaped by extraordinary events that changed the course of human history and changed the course of their own personal lives. All that they had known had been upended. They had a new social structure to adjust to. They left their homes behind and lived out of suitcases for years. The rules and conventions that had governed their whole lives were undone and all this happened in the space of just a few short decades.
Clara and her friends are part of what’s now called Generation Z. they are known as the first generation not to have experienced life without technology or social media. The first three significant events of most of their lives they don’t even remember – 9/11, the invention of the iPhone, and the financial crash of 2008. Those events have shaped and will continue to shape their lives in ways we don’t even know yet. Generation Z has been a generation of extremes just as much as the generation of the wilderness was.
The question for the person of faith and for all of us who struggle through wildernesses of our own – How do we face that wilderness? How do we make meaning? How do we resist the urge to be like the prophet Jonah who finds himself in a wilderness and wishes only to curl up and die?
The generation of the wilderness, guided by their human leaders and guided by their divine leader, did three important things: they took a census, they paid special attention to the physical deployment of the community, and they followed elaborate rituals of time and space.
After being buffeted by the extremes of the significant events in the first few years of their generation, the first thing dor ha midbar did was take a census. They counted individually, and personally every person in the community. We’ll forgive our ancestors for only counting the adult men, because what they were really doing symbolically was to enumerating how each person counted. The generation of the wilderness had the gift of facing the wilderness AS a generation. The census showed them the riches in their community, the resources in human power. Instead of feeling alone in the desert like Jonah the hundreds of thousands of people who shared the experience with them brought comfort and strength. The census brought the positive experience of being part of a mixed multitude to bear on the wilderness generation. When we find ourselves overwhelmed by the extremes of wilderness we take stick of our own human resources. Those who share experiences with us, the comfort and strength found in numbers.
After each day wandering through the wilderness, the children of Israel did the exact opposite of what you or I might do. We struggle through the hard parts of the journey and then plop ourselves down wherever we land. Exhausted, depleted, we find a decent place to camp for the night and set up tents. The desert generation did something that was entirely counterintuitive – they paid careful attention to the physical deployment of the camp. Each tribe had an assigned place. It knew where it would camp, who would be on its left, who would be on its right and of course it knew exactly how many people. They made meaning from the chaos by assigning order where they could. When we find ourselves in a wilderness we make order any way we can. We bring organization and purpose even to places and situations where it seems impossible to do so. And in controlling our physical space we can begin to bring order to our spiritual space as well.
The third and final thing that the generation of the wilderness did was create and uphold rituals. The Torah speaks in detail about the elaborate ceremony of setting up and taking down the Tent of Meeting and its appurtenances. The table raised, then covered with a blue cloth, on that is placed the ladles and the jars, which are covered with a crimson cloth. There is a lampstand, and fire pans. And each and every thing is lovingly placed and arranged in a certain order. What genius to give the children of Israel ritual to guide their days and nights. For ritual did for them what ritual does for us in our own wildernesses, it brings a sense of the familiar. It creates meaning from shared history and observance. Even when the children of Israel didn’t know what the next day’s wilderness might bring they could take comfort from the soothing repetition of the habitual routine. When our world is upended, the quiet rituals of life restore a sense of calm and order.
Like the children of Israel, we are people wandering through a spiritual, if not geographical wilderness. Let us take count of our vast human resources. Let us order ourselves into communal structures and family units. And let us find rituals which bring comfort and familiarity to our days and nights so that our generations might make meaning from the wilderness in which wander.