Parshat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)
Parshat Bamidbar lends its name to the entire book of Bamidbar (Numbers). This name was not chosen merely because the word “Bamidbar” appears in the first pasuk (verse) of the book, but rather because the content focuses on the sojourns of the People of Israel in the desert as they wandered for forty years.
Nearly every year, we begin reading this book around the time of the holiday of Shavuot. Presumably, this wasn’t by chance: the Torah, as we know, was given at Mount Sinai, in the desert.
One of the enigmas with which our Sages struggled is the meaning behind where the Torah was given. A desert can provide an awe-inspiring backdrop, but it is usually far away from inhabited areas and the water so sorely needed by those who wander within it. Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to stage this unprecedented event in a more dignified venue?
The Midrash answers this question in different ways.
Some claim that the reason behind the Divine decision to give the Torah in the desert was “to preempt non-Jews who might say: ‘The Torah was given in His land, so it was not given to us’”. In other words, God did not want to let the non-Jews justify their unwillingness to accept the Torah with all kinds of excuses and stories. Had He given the Torah in the Land of Israel, they could have avoiding accepting the Torah by saying that the Torah was given in the autonomous territory of another nation.
Other say that the reason the desert was chosen as the location for the giving of the Torah was so that “a dispute would not erupt between the tribes, so that one might say, ‘The Torah was given in my land!’, and the other, ‘The Torah was given in my land!”. God is fully familiar with his children and their disputes and controversies. If the Torah were to be given in a particular place, a world war would have erupted between different groups, with each one vying for complete ownership of the Torah.
The Midrash concludes this series of explanations with a statement:
“This is why the Torah was given in the desert… in no man’s land. The Torah was given in three things – in the desert, in fire, and in water – to tell you the following: ‘these things are freely available to all, and likewise, the words of the Torah are available to all.”
(Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael)
This explanation – that the Torah was given in a place over which no specific group could claim ownership – has a natural continuation: in the laws of the desert, the guiding principle is that there is, indeed, no formal ownership of the desert, but there are those who enjoy an advantage and exert greater influence. Those who physically wander the desert, tread through its dried-out riverbeds, climb its cliffs and clamber down its slopes have, in practice, become the lords of the desert. The desert may be no man’s land, but it can be bought with blood, sweat and tears.
The Torah is just like the desert. It is only acquired by those who immerse themselves in its tents, or, as the Sages put it, “If a man does not lose himself in the desert, he does not merit to receive the words of the Torah” (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni).
If we wish to connect to the wondrous world of the Torah and to its wise teachings, we must exert an effort to do so. This is the only way we can truly inherit the Torah.
[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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