Wisdom From the Wilderness
“Numbers” might be how we call the fourth of the Five Books of Moses, but in the Hebrew original it is known as Bemidbar, or, In the Wilderness. It is interesting to note that this parsha is always read before the festival of Shavuot, the season of the Giving of the Torah. What is the connection?
The Rabbis taught that it is not enough for G-d to give us the Torah; we have to be ready to receive the Torah. What makes us worthy recipients of this most precious and infinite gift from G-d? This is where the Wilderness idea comes in. A wilderness is a no man’s land. It is ownerless and barren. Just as a desert is empty and desolate, so does a student of Torah need to know that he is but an “empty vessel.” Humility is a vital prerequisite if we are to successfully absorb divine wisdom. So long as we are full of ourselves and our preconceived notions we will not be able to assimilate and integrate Torah into our being. Even if are already somewhat accomplished in our Torah studies, we still need to remember as the Kotzker Rebbe put it, that “As much as you know, you are still an undeveloped desert.”
Then there is the idea that an ownerless desert is there for anyone to stake his claim. No man or group of men has a monopoly on Torah. It belongs to each and every single Jew, not only the Rabbis or the Yeshiva students, or the religiously observant. “The Torah that Moses commanded us is the heritage of the entire Congregation of Jacob.” 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. Indeed, some of our finest Torah scholars throughout the generations have hailed from the simple, ordinary folk – tailors, cobblers and the like.
Maimonides in his Laws of Torah Study (Chapter 3,1) states: “With three crowns was Israel adorned – the Crown of Torah, the Crown of the Priesthood and the Crown of Royalty. The Priesthood was the privilege of Aaron…Royalty was the privilege of King David…the Crown of Torah is there ready and waiting for all of Israel…and it is the greatest crown of all.” However, while it may be ‘free for all,’ we must surrender to it rather than attempt to adjust it to our own circumstances and lifestyles.
And then, like the empty, uninhabited wilderness, the Torah personality may well find himself alone and isolated. Most Rabbis will confirm that it can be very lonely at the top. We might express our strongly held values and beliefs only to discover that we stand alone and very much ‘odd man out.’ We might display the courage of our convictions and find ourselves, like Abraham, ‘on the other side’ of the whole world. Our principles may well prove unpopular; especially should they stand on toes or upset apple carts. No matter. Being true to G-d and His Torah means standing by it – no matter what – under any and every circumstance.
May the literal title of our parsha and all the many lessons it conveys serve as a fitting prelude for the beautiful festival of Shavuot and may we receive the Torah with joy and earnestness so that this important Yom Tov will be meaningful and memorable.
Excerpted from the book From Where I Stand by Rabbi Yossy Goldman. Available at leading Jewish booksellers.