A Word on the Haftara: the Essence of Midbar
by R. Diane Elliot
Shabbat B’midbar, 46th day of the Omer 5767
We learn spiritual lessons as we encounter the Mystery revealed and obscured through the unfolding of often-stormy relationships among the central archetypal figures of our Jewish consciousness: YHVH, God-Who-Is-Becoming; the Israelite peoples, drawn by God from the constriction of Egyptian slavery into this unknown, unbounded space of midbar, thrust into their own, terrifying, “process-of-becoming;” Torah, God’s many-layered, demanding, often baffling transmission to the people; and the human guides who struggle to translate and implement the Divine imperatives—Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Yehoshua, Korach, Bila’am, representing the generations of priests, prophets, rebels, and sages to come.
In these encounters, the relationship between God and the Israelite people often appears filled with violence, fear, anger, and mistrust. Rachel Adler, in Engendering Judaism, writes: “Relationships expose our nakedness. To seek anything from another is to tacitly acknowledge that we cannot attain our desire alone….In contrast many biblical scholars depict the covenant of God and Israel as an ancient contract between radically unequal parties, one of them so powerful and self-sufficient as to have no need of the contract.” (p. 156)
In the prophetic works, however, as Adler points out, the brit or covenant between God and the Israelite people is most often portrayed as a marriage. The Book of Hosea represents the oldest of these Biblical covenant-marriage metaphors. In it Hosea is commanded by God to marry a faithless whore, a woman of many lovers. Her name is given as Gomer-bat-Dibla-im, which seems to be a play on words meaning something like “Death (from the Hebrew verb root G.M.R = to end or complete)-with big sweet knockers” (dibla-im being a kind of round fig cake!). Hosea’s marriage is meant to act out the soured covenant between God and the Israelite people. And he, like God, falls painfully, frustratingly in love with his faithless wife.
Today’s haftarah begins with a tirade of rebuke, in which the cuckolded husband lashes out at the faithless wife, threatening to strip her naked as on the day she was born, to make her a midbar, a wilderness, a thirsty, barren land. But then, in an anguish of frustrated tenderness, his words soften—for he cannot abandon her, the mother of his children, any more than he can control her. Now he (God) speaks of the wilderness to which he would consign her (Israel) as the place of their youthful love. He wistfully recalls the days soon after bringing her up from Egypt, when she was dependent upon his strong, rescuing arm.
Clearly the memory is idealized, for we see throughout Torah that Israel’s time b’midbar is filled with grumbling and rebellion, angry outbursts on all sides and, over and over again, the stretching of faith, both God’s in the people and they in Him. But in the last part of this passage, the imagery is reversed. Here the wilderness is seen as a place of truth, of great potential for healing and succor. The messianic vision put forth in these verses is one that hinges upon the potential for an I-Thou relationship between wife and husband, God and Israel, a covenant in which my husband is no longer “my master,” but simply “ my man.”
The passage ends with the well-known lines spoken daily by every observant Jew as s/he winds the final bit of the arm strap the middle finger and palm of his or her left hand, the hand closest to the heart:
I will betroth you to me in righteousness, and in impeccability,
with grace, and in mercy.
I will betroth you to me in truth and faith,
and you shall intimately know the Divine. (Hosea 2:21-22)
Here there is trust and justice and kindness and a commitment that can never be abrogated. Here the wilderness, the midbar, appears as a space of innocence, truth, and rectification, in which dibbur, speech, issues from the Transcendant within each of us, is impressed directly upon the human heart, a space in which even God is healed.
© 2007 Rabbi Diane Elliot