Bamidbar: Into the Wilderness

(Enter Moses into the Wilderness outside the Israelite camp, alone. He looks fatigued and worn-out; suddenly, his legs buckle, and he slumps to the ground. He looks up to the Heavens in an accusing manner.)

            Dear God, can you not ease my burden of this People? It is not enough that they are always quarrelling—Issachar, Zebulun, and Reuben conjoin to gang up on Judah. I know through prophecy tells me that they will be the leading tribe in the future, though I certainly will never live to see it.

(He cocks his head, as if listening to a Heavenly Echo, a Whisper of Prophecy.)

            Yes, yes, I know Your future plans for this People: that they will become mighty in the region, but then, alas! They will go down to conquest, fire and ruin. Today, meanwhile, it pains me that You commanded me to take a census; You know that no good ever follows a census—why? That is Your affair, not mine—apparently, You too follow the old superstition that no one should ever know exactly how much they possess, whether money, land, or people. Approximations must serve, to fend off evil.

            And there are other flashpoints which I must disarm, Lord, with or without Your help. When we spoke on Mt. Sinai, You commanded me to appoint the firstborn of each tribe to serve You in the Mishkan-Sanctuary. That was difficult enough to enforce—most of the People know full well that You prefer the last-born—as I am; as were Isaac and Jacob. Thank You for agreeing with me—we do not always see eye to eye, You and I.

            But Your decision to cast the firstborn aside from Your service in favor of the Levites, my own tribe—that was difficult for the firstborn to reconcile. They willingly accepted the blame for the sin of the Golden Calf, and all did penance for it—indeed, many died for it, slain by my  tribe, the Levites who had displaced them as Your principal servants. Assisted by my Brother Aaron and Colonel Joshua, I labored mightily to convince the firstborn that, like it or not, they had been displaced. Why? Well, You Yourself are a firstborn, so to speak—“The first to be, though never He began.”

            Forgive me that last statement, Lord; I am well aware that You were never born. But I am growing older, and it is becoming more difficult to lead and direct this stubborn and stiff-necked people. Yes, yes; I know that the time is not yet ripe for Joshua to replace me—and the prophecy is cloudy: I do not know when and how that change in leadership will occur.

(Moses struggles to his feet, using his shepherd’s crook to assist him. He cocks an ear to the sky—again, hearing prophecy from the Most High.)

            So, so, Lord—what is left to me? I have no progeny; Gershom and Elazar, the sons I neglected in Your service, are gone off, somewhere—I heard rumors that they remained in Egypt, and are doing their best to achieve citizenship, but the Royal Egyptian Immigration Office is making it extremely hard for non-native-born Egyptians to do so. And Pharaoh is strongly considering a wall to prevent refugees like Your people to return—well, that is all for the good, I suppose, though I am not sure. All is confused and bleak—

(Looks up to Heaven, one more time.)

Stand by me, Lord. I am Your faithful servant, come what may. But there is a reciprocity, here: You must help me to help the people. Ah well—Thy will be done. Amen!

(A rumble of distant thunder. Moses smiles, grimly, and exits.)

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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