On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, Adonai spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai. (Numbers 1:1)
Three-quarters of the Torah is the story of Israel's wanderings in the wilderness. Wilderness is the place where Israel receives Torah and enters into a covenant with God. The name of this week's portion, B'midbar, literally means 'In Wilderness.'
The Rabbis of the Talmud and midrash sought the significance of the wilderness as the place where most of Torah happens. They read a verse that says, "from Midbar to Mattanah" (Numbers 21:18), and understood it according to the literal meaning of the place names: "From wilderness, there is a gift."
Torah itself is the gift that comes from wilderness, say the Rabbis. They taught that you must 'make yourself like a wilderness' in order to receive Torah (B'midbar Rabbah 19:26; Babylonian Talmud, Eiruvin 54a). But, what does that mean? What does wilderness represent in the Torah, and what does it mean in our lives?
To the ancients, the wilderness was a place beyond the borders of any people. The wilderness was an ownerless 'no-man's-land' and was free for all to pass through. The wilderness also was an unknown land of danger.
Perhaps the Rabbis meant that to receive Torah you must release yourself from attachments, shake yourself loose from the illusion that you are 'owned' by anyone or anything. To receive Torah you must make yourself truly free, just as the Israelites could not receive the Torah on Mount Sinai until they were free from Egypt.
Perhaps the Rabbis also meant that you must be open-minded and openhearted to receive Torah. Only when you are willing, like the wilderness, to have all people and all ideas pass through you, will you be able to truly accept Torah. Torah is a gift you receive when you open your heart to all.
Further, the Rabbis suggest that Torah is not just the private learning of the Jews; it is a wisdom for all peoples. Torah, like the wilderness itself, is universally accessible and has no borders.
Finally, the Rabbis seem to warn that receiving Torah involves danger-the danger of being vulnerable to the unknown. To receive Torah, you must confront your fears and do battle with personal demons. It is a place for deep introspection, and that frightens us.
In all of these understandings of the Rabbis' declaration that you must "make yourself like a wilderness," the critical element for receiving Torah is an attitude . To receive Torah you must release yourself from the temporal and material demands of others, from your own preconceptions. You must be open to truth wherever you find it and cultivate an independence of mind.
Above all, this is an attitude of humility. Receiving Torah is laying yourself vulnerable to the possibility that your assumptions are wrong. Becoming a wilderness means that you lay your ego low and allow Torah to enter.
Another classic midrash compares God giving the Torah to a prince who was treated as a hostile power by the lands he visited (B'midbar Rabbah 1:2). . The people of each land fled when they saw the prince approach. Finally, the prince came to a ruined city, one that already had been destroyed by battle. The people there greeted him with praise. The prince said, "This city is the best of all the lands. Here I will build a home, here I will live."
Then the midrash tells us that the same is true of God. It teaches, "When the Holy Blessed One came to the Sea of Reeds, the sea fled (Psalm 114:1-3), but when God came to the arid wilderness, it greeted God with praise, as it is written, 'The wilderness and its towns cry aloud' (Isaiah 42:11). God said, 'This city is the best of all the lands for Me. In this place I will build a congregation and dwell within it.'"
When you are at the point of ruin, when you have been shattered by loss and feel that you have nothing more to lose, that is the moment when it is easiest to receive Torah and let God in. Fortunately, most of us do not spend the majority of our lives in that state. So how do we let God into our lives during a time of comfort and security? At such a time, our psyches rebel against a Torah that asks for humility and recognition of fallibility. How do you let God in when you are convinced of your own importance?
The Torah that is received in the wilderness is the Torah you experience when you put aside conceit and open yourself to God. This is a critical teaching for the many people in our culture who feel the constant urge to "get ahead" or who fixate on physical appearance and the appearance of confidence and mastery.
Certainly, it is good to have direction in life and to achieve. It is good to possess self-confidence. But true achievement and self-confidence do not come from enslaving your mind to a material goal or image. They come from humble self-awareness of our limited selves and our temporary condition in a world where God is the only constant. That is the Torah we receive in the wilderness.
By the Way
- Only when you are "like a wilderness" are you ready to have God's presence rest upon you and merit the light of Torah. "Like a wilderness" means that you have not yet been touched by human hands, that you have never been cultivated or planted, that you must rely on your own strength, as in the teaching, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" (Mishnah Avot 1:14) (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, quoted in Itturei Torah [Hebrew], vol. 5, by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg [Tel Aviv: Yavneh, 1996], p. 9)
- Such is the study of Torah: to negate yourself before the way that Torah leads you, so that every deed be only to fulfill God's will and desire. You do that by self-negation, by submitting in every act to the inner life-force, which is the life of God, by means of the letters of Torah that lie within the deed. (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, Sefat Emet, quoted in The Language of Truth, by Arthur Green [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998], p. 220)
- In midrash, the ruined city—or parched wilderness—opens itself to God's presence. Have you ever experienced feeling like a ruin or a wilderness? Were you then more in touch with God?
- Menachem Mendel of Kotzk teaches an ideal of independence in which you "rely on your own strength." Can this be reconciled with an attitude of humility?
- The Sefat Emet teaches that you must submit to the "inner life-force, which is the life of God." How do you submit yourself to something that is within yourself? How do you practice "self-negation" by seeing divinity within?
Rabbi Jeffrey W. Goldwasser is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, North Adams, Massachusetts.