Parshat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1 – 4:20)
This Shabbat, we’ll read the opening Torah portion of the fourth of the five Books of Moses – the Book of Bamidbar. Then, later in the week, we will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, which our rabbis termed “the time of the giving of the Torah” (no explicit connection is made in the Torah between the holiday of Shavuot, also known as the holiday of the first harvest, and the time of the giving of the Torah). It is therefore quite natural for us to try to understand the connection between these two events – the giving of the Torah and the reading from the book of Bamidbar.
The first verse of the book begins: “And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai desert”. Our Sages ask why the Torah emphasizes the fact that this took place in the desert. It could have happened anywhere. Why the Sinai desert? From this, they infer that the Torah was given with three elements: fire, water and desert. Why was the Torah given with these three things? Because they are freely available to all creatures, just as the words of the Torah are freely given to all, as the verse states: “All who thirst, go to water” [Isaiah 55:1].
This teaching stresses that the Torah being given in the desert is not a random historical fact, but rather one that determines the very essence of the Torah. It belongs to each and every one of us free of charge. The Torah could have been given in closed forums, like groups of rabbis secretly convening in the dead of night. This was often the case for ancient tribes that passed secret traditions to a select few.
But the giving of the Torah is different. The significance of its being given in the desert, a place open to the entire world, is that the Torah is open to all of humanity. Non-Jews had also experienced the unique events that occurred on that day (thunder, the sounds of the Shofar, torches, etc.). This was to convey the message that the Torah is relevant for the entire world.
The Midrash suggests another answer to the question of what is unique about the desert and what makes it the appropriate place for the giving of the Torah. “Those who do not humble themselves, likening themselves to a humble desert, cannot acquire the wisdom and the Torah, and this is why the verse stated that it was given in the Sinai desert.” [Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7]
Though the Rabbis state that anyone can become closer to the Torah, they make one important exception. A person who learns Torah must humble himself, like a desert. What does this mean? The simple interpretation is that the rabbis are calling upon us to study out of a sense of humility, by negating the self. Is their intent utter self-nullification, so that a student may listen to the word of Hashem but remain unable to ask any questions? Is Torah study simply memorizing written instructions?
Therefore, the next verse is crucially important: “Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers’ houses” [Num 1:2]. This is a command us to conduct a census of all males aged 20 and above, according to their tribal associations, with the tribes’ identity being defined by the fathers’ affiliation (unlike national affiliation, or Jewishness, which is traditionally determined by the identity of the mother).
If so, why does the Torah use the words se’u et rosh – “lift up the heads”? It would have made more sense to simply say “count the number of males”, or something along those lines.
Hasidic sages provided an answer to this question, assuming various rhetorical styles. They tell us that when a national census is conducted, there is concern that individuals will end up being regarded as numbers, lacking identity or personality – merely faceless foot soldiers in a king’s army, or cogs in the wheel of a great revolution. Consequently, the Torah wants us to “lift up the heads” of each and every individual being counted, so that we appreciate that each human being is the entire world, and accordingly, we must recognize the virtues of each head we count.
This message seems to starkly contradict the principle discussed in the previous paragraph, which entreats us to be modest when we study Torah. Perhaps there is a difference between the way the public establishment should regard each individual and the way a person is meant to regard himself.
We warn a ruler conducting a census of his people not to devalue the counted individuals or treat them like numbers, but when we peer deeper into this issue, we understand that we must discern between modesty, employed to be fully attentive to the word of Hashem, and the type of listening that nullifies an individual’s talents and skills.
The Torah does not ask us to negate our identities when studying – to the contrary, our rabbis tell us that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah (though in reality, there are only about 300,000), corresponding with the 600,000 members of the nation of Israel, so that, in effect, each individual has his own letter. Each of us needs to use our skills, inquisitiveness, and reflection to discover our unique letters.
The Torah is not acquired through the type of modesty that negates a person’s talent for studying – quite the contrary, the Torah needs that talent like the air we breathe. But we must nevertheless preserve the modesty that reminds us how devoid of value we are when hearing the word of Hashem. It is only when this complexity exists – when we liken ourselves to a desert, but also “lift up heads” – that we can have the proper relationship with the Torah.