The dual sidrah Chukkat-Balak presents an interesting focus on words and language; where Moses should have used words, but didn’t, and Balaam tried to use words, but couldn’t.
“Speak to the Rock,” God exhorts Moses in the face of a thirsting people, but in his frustration at the rebellious masses, he instead strikes the rock. An irate God chastises him and Moses will not merit to enter the land of Israel.
Only verses later, the people “speak against God and Moses” (21:5) and are punished with a plague of venomous snakes. Voices of rebellion once again paint the nation with the dark brush of ingratitude.
In a parallel story, Balaam is repeatedly frustrated in his efforts to curse the Israelites and has his intended words twisted in his mouth, only to exit in a blessing so powerful that it is used to this day in our daily liturgy: Ma Tovu, “how goodly are thy tents, oh Jacob”.
The sidrah concludes with Pinchas’s passionate yet wordless zeal as he takes a violent stand against the immorality brought into the Jewish camp.
And so we head towards the end of the book of Numbers, a book replete with voices of rebellion — that of the nation demanding water and different food sources: “Give us meat!”; Miriam’s suggested lashon hara; voices of biased spies; Korah’s vocal rebellion against the leadership model. It is a book that will witness further voices of rebellion, this time demanding justice — the daughters of Zelophehad.
The very name of this penultimate book of the Torah, Bemidbar, “in the wilderness”, is striking in its shared linguistic root of the word dibbur, “speech”. Again and again we see a nation whipped into a vocal frenzy. We see individuals, groups and factions using a newly found voice, for good and for bad. And we see Balaam, a classic case of words twisted and poisonous, destructive and insidious.
Beginning in our people’s infancy — discovering a “voice” while traversing the wilderness — a timeless challenge is to develop our voice to be one of integrity and passion. A voice that will be used to advocate, to defend those whose voices are, for whatever reason, muted. To be a voice of rebellion, in the truest and best sense.
Perhaps a way of understanding why we refer to this book as Numbers rather than Wilderness is to recognise that our words, and even our silences, have enormous value, and that every voice counts.