Monday, May 23, 2011

Thirsty for Torah: Parashat BeMidbar

Our parasha this week, the opening portion of the Book of Numbers (in Hebrew bamidbar which means “in the desert.”), begins with the following verse:

Numbers 1:1. The Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying.

א. וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר:

Our sages wonder about the importance of these introductory details. Why does it matter that God speaks to Moses in the desert? Why do the Israelites receive revelation in such a seemingly desolate and unremarkable locale? The Rabbis offered the following interpretation in Numbers Rabbah, a compilation of homiletic midrashim on the Book of Numbers:

מדרש רבה במדבר פרשה א סימן ז

ז וידבר ה׳ אל משה במדבר סיני למה במדבר סיני מכאן שנו חכמים בג׳ דברים ניתנה התורה באש ובמים ובמדבר באש מנין (שמות יט) והר סיני עשן כולו וגו׳ ובמים מנין שנאמר (שופטים ה) גם שמים נטפו גם עבים נטפו מים ובמדבר מנין וידבר ה׳ אל משה במדבר סיני ולמה ניתנה בג׳ דברים הללו אלא מה אלו חנם לכל באי העולם כך דברי תורה חנם הם שנאמר (ישעיה נה) הוי כל צמא לכו למים ד״א וידבר ה׳ אל משה במדבר סיני אלא כל מי שאינו עושה עצמו כמדבר הפקר אינו יכול לקנות את החכמה והתורה לכך נאמר במדבר סיני:

Midrash Rabbah - Numbers I:7

AND THE LORD SPOKE UNTO MOSES IN THE WILDERNESS OF SINAI. Why in the wilderness of Sinai? Our Sages have inferred from this verse that the Torah was given to the accompaniment of three things, fire, water, and wilderness. How do we know about the FIRE? From the text, “Now Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire.” (Ex. XIX, 18). And how do we know about the water? For it is said, “The heavens also dropped, yea, the clouds dropped water.” (Judg. V, 4). And how do we know about the wilderness? From the text, “AND THE LORD SPOKE UNTO MOSES IN THE WILDERNESS OF SINAI.”

Why was the giving of the Torah marked by these three features? To indicate that just as these are free to all mankind so also are the words of the Torah free; as it is said, Behold, every one that is thirsty, come for water (Isa. LV, I).1 Yet another exposition of the text, AND THE LORD SPOKE UNTO MOSES IN THE WILDERNESS OF SINAI. Anyone who does not throw himself open to all like a wilderness cannot acquire wisdom and Torah; and so it is said, IN THE WILDERNESS OF SINAI.

Why is the wilderness important? The desert is a place that is defined by freedom. Just as, ideally, we are all free to access the treasures of nature, so too are we all free to access Torah. The rabbis tell us lo bashamim hi, the Torah is not in heaven. It is here on earth and in our mouths if we let it into our lives. The wilderness also teaches us that it is not enough to have Torah accessible. We need to be open to learn its lessons and internalize them. We must recognize the bounty of Torah, Torah life, and Torah values and then open ourselves up wide enough to access its wisdom and beauty.

As we continue our work together in Waterville, we must remember these two important facts that the rabbis communicated with such passion and eloquence. Torah can be accessed anywhere, and it is free to all who thirst for it. Moreover, even if it seems alien or hard to swallow, we must remain open to Torah’s unexpected revelations and directions on how to live a holy life in the context of a holy community.