Over the past year, many businesses have been forced to switch directions in order to survive. Restaurant owners stopped prioritizing friendly and competent wait staff in favor of finding efficient web technology and delivery drivers. As more locations required masks, skin care and eye makeup took precedence over lipstick, causing cosmetic companies to revamp their lines.
Even without the current upheaval, changing direction is a feature of life. Parents unhappy with their children’s school sometimes move to another neighborhood. A husband and wife might switch directions to escape the unhealthy rut into which their marriage has fallen. And, of course, countries change leaders in ways that dramatically change the nation’s course.
Switching directions can destroy or save a floundering firm, a failing family, or a nation. Nevertheless, conceiving of the new path is incredibly difficult and fraught with peril. Inertia tends to make us think the current way is the only way. How do we escape these shackles and open up limitless possibilities?
The fourth book of the Torah, opens with these words:
And the Lord spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai…
After setting the scene “in the desert of Sinai” the book continues with a detailed census of the Israelites followed by an equally detailed description of how the Israelite campsite must be laid out.
Isn’t it odd that the Children of Israel are to be counted when the Torah records God’s promises to Abraham (Genesis 15:5 and 22:17) and to Jacob (Genesis 32:13) that their descendants will be too numerous to count?
Second, why is so much time spent arranging the camp site when, at this point in the narrative, they are heading directly for the Promised Land? (Numbers 10:29) The decree of spending forty years in the desert hasn’t happened yet. Why worry about a few weeks of camping details until they reach Israel?
Ancient Jewish wisdom reveals how both the counting and the camp layout were crucial preparations for the permanent settlement of the Land of Israel and the future of the Jewish people.
The Hebrew name for Numbers is Bamidbar, meaning “in the desert.” However, ancient Jewish wisdom offers a second name for the book, “Sefer haPekudim.” This can translate as “The Book of Numbers,” but Pekudim also means appointments, positions, purposes, or assignments, or the “Book of Assignments.”
It follows that the numbering and positioning in the first two chapters of Bamidbar share a function, namely establishing everyone’s physical position in the community as well as everyone’s purpose or assignment. Switching direction from their earlier lives in slavery was essential if they were to succeed as a nation.
Determining how all the elements in the organization would dovetail is best accomplished in a desert!
In ancient Jewish wisdom a desert does not suggest a physical place like the Sahara, Kalahari or Mojave Deserts. In Hebrew, “midbar” or desert means barren emptiness. No sight of wildlife, no sounds of birds, nothing growing. Just the people and God.
This desert is a metaphor for a place of no distractions, no pre-formatted reality, and no life pattern into which the visitor must fit. It also shares a root with the Hebrew word for “speech.” It is the place open to almost anything and where you can hear yourself and others speak of ideas in a safe environment. It is also the place, where you need to format and organize your plans, just as random words are useless but when gathered together purposefully they possess unlimited power.
Today, in our busy lives so often in need of realignment, taking time to be alone (without even having any technology within reach) is vitally important.
In other words, when having to develop a new paradigm for your family or your business, get yourself into a desert. Strip away all structure and let your imagination soar. It is a ‘place’ increasingly difficult to find in today’s world, and increasingly necessary to access.
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