BAMIDBAR/NUMBERS 1:1 – 4:20
This week we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah. Numbers” is the name by which the fourth of the Five Books of Moses is commonly called in English Bibles, but in the Hebrew original it is known as Bamidbar, or “In the Wilderness.” Of particular interest is the fact that this is the Torah portion always precedes the Festival of Shavuot, the celebration of the giving of the Torah. Why is that?
We know that Israel is called to be a ‘light to the nations’; we are called to ‘be holy as I am holy, says the Lord’, Consequently, Shavuot is not just a celebration of an historical event, not just a remembrance of that awesome day when God Himself descended on Mt. Sinai and gave us His Torah. As great as that is, Shavuot is more than that.
God could have chosen to give the Torah to Avraham. He didn’t. He could have given it to Jacob and his twelve sons. He didn’t. He could have given it in the holy city of Jerusalem. He didn’t. He chose the wilderness, the desert, as the suitable place for this awesome event.
THe desert is a no-man’s land. It is ownerless and barren. Just as a desert is empty and desolate, so does each of us need to know that we are but an “empty vessel.” Humility is an essential character if we are to successfully absorb the divine wisdom in the words of Torah – and those of the prophets as well.
As long as we are full of ourselves and our preconceived notions, we will not be able to integrate the essence and spirit of the Torah into our hearts and lives. Even when we think we know a good deal about the sacred writings, the truth is, as the old proverb describes, “the older I get, the less I know” or as one of the Sages wrote, “as much as you know, you are still an undeveloped wilderness.”
Another reason we can consider to answer the question, Why did God give the Torah in the desert?, is that an ownerless wilderness is open to anyone. No person or group of people has a monopoly on Torah. It belongs to each and every single Jew, not just the rabbis or the yeshivah students, or the religiously observant. “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the entire Congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4). Add to that, the multitudes of descendants of Jewish ancestry that in our day are making their way home; those described in the prophet Ezekiel, as the ‘house of Israel’ are being reunited with the ‘house of Judah’ though they have lived as Gentiles because of past generations’ assimilation under persecution. It is an astonishing and inspiring phenomenon as we today witness, for example, literally thousands of descendants of the generation of the Inquisition in Spain, Portugal and France, re-connecting to that holy spark of their ancestors and returning to the Torah, for the Torah is also theirs.
While we acknowledge that there is much hard work ahead of us if we are to acquire the Torah and make it ours, we also know that with diligence and effort we can succeed. Some of Judaism’s finest Torah scholars throughout the generations have emerged from the simple, ordinary folks; shepherds, tailors, cobblers and the like.
Now, while this holy Torah, given in the wilderness, is available to all, it is those who embrace it with love, who let go of preconceived notions and attitudes, and the inclination to ‘pick and choose’ among the commandments, who progressively discover a living relationship with the God of Israel, the joy of which is un-equalled by any other relationship or experience. Rightly did David cry out, “In Your presence is fulness of joy; at Your right hand, are pleasures for evermore.” Psalm 16:11
For this, in fact, is the heart of Shavuot: that the the God of Israel ‘married’ the people of Israel and the Ketubah (marriage contract) is the Torah. The Torah was NOT given to establish a religious system, contrary to what some may think. The Torah was given to establish a living, breathing, pulsing, joyful and intimate relationship between God and His people.
This statement does not in any way demean Judaism as a religion; rather, it is intended to highlight the GOAL of Judaism – to provide a framework where His chosen people, learning and living according to the Torah, would become a community, a nation, that would demonstrate the incomparable beauty of a living relationship with the Almighty. To observe the mitzvot and the traditions of Judaism without the inner, personal relationship with God misses the mark entirely.
As Maimonides has commented on this verse: Behold, I have take the Levites from amongst the children of Israel… and the Levites shall be Mine (3:12)
“Not only the tribe of Levi, but any man of all the inhabitants of the earth whose spirit has moved him and whose mind has given him to understand to set himself aside to stand before G-d to serve Him, to worship Him, to know G-d and walk justly as G-d has created him, and he casts from his neck the yoke of the many calculations that men seek–this man has become sanctified, a holy of holies, and G-d shall be his portion and his lot forever, and shall merit him his needs in this world, as He has merited the Kohanim and the Levites.”
In Tune with Torah this week = may the very title of this week’s reading, “Bamidabar/the Wilderness”, and the significance of it which we have briefly discussed, give us ample food for thought as we prepare ourselves for the upcoming Festival of Shavuot, which will be observed from sundown, June 3 through sundown, June 4th. May we embrace the Torah anew with joy and earnestness, so that this important festival will be both memorable and meaningful.