In Parashat Bamidbar there is a census of all men who are able to fight. The Haftarah from Hosea begins with the verse “Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor numbered,” that connects to the census in the desert. The Haftarah also tells about Gomer daughter of Diblaim, a harlot whom Hosea is ordered to marry. The relationship between Hosea and Gomer is an allegory to the relationship between God and the Children of Israel; A relationship fraught with jealousy and anger: “she is not My wife, neither am I her husband… let her put away her harlotries… Lest I strip her naked, and set her as in the day that she was born, and make her as a wilderness, and set her like a dry land, and slay her with thirst.” The relationship is defined in terms of ownership, and therefore any disobedience is severely punished.
In a reality in which women are murdered as a result of domestic violence the marital relationship of Hosea and Gomer is troubling because it reflects a social and cultural perspective in which the women is owned by the man. The movement in the story of Hosea and Gomer from sin and punishment to sin and redemption is still within the framework of ownership: “And I will betroth thee unto Me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto Me in righteousness, and in justice, and in lovingkindness, and in compassion.”
How could the relationship between Gomer and Hosea be relevant to our lives? What is the connection between walking in the desert, the census and marital life?
The book of Numbers describes the Children of Israel’s wanderings through the desert. If we see the relationship between God and his people, Hosea and Gomer, in terms of a spiritual practice, there’s much to learn from the desert. The desert is boundless, and we don’t own it. When we go out to the desert we accept impermanence and do not control the situation. The Sages suggest that “Once a person renders himself like a wilderness, deserted before all, the Torah is given to him as a gift” (Nedarim 55a).
The census in the desert is not about numbers. It is about being willing to make a difference, willing to be counted upon. When we enter the desert we have to accept a state of impermanence, and when we are willing to desert all the things that seem to give us security and become wilderness, we are granted the spiritual attainment. Gomer’s voice is not heard in the story that is rendered by Hosea. We might imagine Gomer as a free woman, free to fulfil her wishes. The question “Where art thou?” which Adam evades, is answered by Gomer: “Here I am, willing to render myself like a wilderness and receive the Torah.”