On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Eternal One spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers 1:1)
The fourth book attributed to Moses, traditionally called B'midbar (not Ba-midbar) in Hebrew is known in English as "Numbers." This title comes originally from the Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint (third centuryB.C.E.), which named it Arithmoi. The Latin Vulgate took that name and called it Numeri. The old Rabbinic name for the book is chomesh hap'kudim, "one-fifth (of the Pentateuch) dealing with numbers," because of the various lists and censuses recorded in it (see Mishnah Yoma 7:1 and Mishnah M'nachot 4:3). Rashi calls it Vay'dabeir,"and he said," after the very first word of the book (Rashi on Exodus 38:26).
The Book of Numbers covers in thirty-six chapters the forty-year period between the Exodus from Egypt and the entrance to the Holy Land, though most of the material deals with the earliest and the latest years of the journey. According to the German biblical scholar Martin Noth, "The Book lacks unity and it is difficult to see any pattern in its construction," (Numbers: A Commentary [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1968], p. 1).
Others, however, divide the book according to the stages recorded within the desert period. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, for example, finds three stages: preparation for travel in the wilderness, travels in the wilderness, and preparation for the entry into the land of Canaan (Michael D. Coogan, ed., The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. [New York: Oxford University Press, 2001], p. 184). Plaut suggests a division in four parts: regulations promulgated at Sinai, early days of the march, the "Book of Balaam," and events immediately preceding the invasion of Canaan (W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed. [New York: URJ Press, 2005], p. 885).
The text begins fourteen months after the Exodus, with God speaking to Moses, not on Mount Sinai, but this time in the Sinai desert, specifically in the portable sanctuary (here called the Tent of Meeting) built according to the specifications listed in Exodus 25.
Almost every word in the text has generated rabbinic and scholarly interpretations. In our verse, the image of midbar, "desert" is the focus of various comments. For example, Ramban (also called Nachmanides, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1195-1270) states, "Scripture mentions here in the wilderness of Sinai in order to tell us that they did not travel from there until they were counted [the first time, as described here], for the second census was taken in the plains of Moab" (Ramban: Commentary on the Torah, Numbers, transl. Charles B. Chavel [New York: Shilo Publishing House, 1975], p. 5).
Midrash Rabbah poses another question: Why did God speak to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai? It provides various answers including this: "Anyone who does not throw himself open [Hebrew, hefkeir] to all like a wilderness cannot acquire wisdom and Torah" (Midrash Rabbah 1:7, 13).
In Aramaic, the verb d'var means to seize, take, or lead, and the noun dabbar is "leader." Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), the author of S'fat Emet, takes the word midbar, "wilderness," as coming from this Aramaic root and states that "the midbar is one who submits to that rule, the person who negates his own self, realizing that he has no power to act without the life flow of God" (Arthur Green, The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1998], p. 220).
Others discuss another meaning of the word hefkeir: "unclaimed" or "ownerless." Issachar ber Ashkenazi (16th-17th centuries), the author of Matnot Kehunah, says hefkeir means to be "meek and modest." A human being must have these qualities in order to learn from all people and to teach everyone else. Similarly, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson writes, "God spoke from the wilderness of Sinai to remind us of the need for humility; to urge us to be open to all sources of wisdom and knowledge, and, finally, to remind us that we must ultimately serve all of humanity and work for the redemption of the entire world" (The Bedside Torah[Lincolnwood, IL: NTC Publishing Group, 2001], p. 224).
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), one of the famous Chasidic masters of Poland, takes the idea a bit further and sees in the word hefkeir a reference to self-reliance. He taught: anyone who places himself like a desert, content with his lot and not requiring the help of others, is worthy that God's Presence should rest on him (or her). This is similar, he adds, to one who walks in the wilderness alone, relying on one's own strength and not having to depend on the help of others. The student of Torah, he stressed, must work very hard, using all his (or her) strengths, in order to probe the Torah's hidden mysteries and secrets (quoted by Menachem Becker, inParperaot LaTorah, vol. 4 [Jerusalem: USCJ, 1985], p. 10).
This lesson of self-reliance is timely for all of us. It is true that we need all the help and guidance we can get from others as we go through the path of life, but ultimately we need to decide matters of personal consequence on our own, using our minds, instincts, and talents, and find the means to achieve our goals. Though surrounded by family and friends, existentially we stand alone and live in the "desert," where we must learn how to use our inner resources to overcome the challenges facing us in life.
By the Way
Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string.
(Ralph Waldo Emerson, found at www.brainyquote.com)
If anyone If you will it, it is no dream.
(Theodore Herzl, found at http://en.thinkexist.com/quotes/theodor_herzl/)
If you want to do something, do it yourself.
(Napoleon I, found at http://www.napoleonguide.com/maxim_himself.htm)
Help and respect can come to a people only through self-help and self-respect.
(Steven S. Wise, Sermons and Addresses, 1905, p. 5)
When does self-reliance turn into selfishness?
Are we tolerant enough to learn from everyone?
Discuss: The more one learns, the more questions one has.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D., is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, Massachusetts.