Parshas Bamidbar (5770)
This week's Torah portion, named Bamidbar, which means "in the desert," is always read preceding the holiday of Shavuos (The Festival of Weeks), when we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Sinai, more than 3,300 years ago, in the year 1312 BCE.
One reason for this is because the Torah was actually given to the Jewish people in a desert – most likely in the present-day Sinai Peninsula, according to many historians and archaeologists.
Which is kind of strange, if you think about it. I mean, of all the beautiful places in the world that G-d could have chosen to appear in this once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-repeated National Revelation in front of the entire Jewish nation ….. He had to pick a desert?! Deserts are burning hot, with no water, no vegetation, just plain sand, sand, and more sand! Why couldn’t G-d have given us the Torah in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria, or maybe the Superdome, or some other huge stadium or hall?! (Okay, granted that the Midrash teaches that G-d had made the desert bloom in honor of the giving of Torah - which is the reason for our present-day tradition of decorating the synagogues on Shavuos with all types of greenery. But, still, why did G-d have to choose the desert as a place to give the Torah in the first pace?)
This is even more difficult to understand when we consider that the Sages compared our receiving the Ten Commandments from G-d at Mount Sinai to a “wedding” between G-d and the Jewish people (the mountain suspended above our heads was the chuppah, with the two Tablets of Stone as the wedding ring). Who ever heard of making a wedding in a desert? What’s the groom going to stamp on at the end of the ceremony … a scorpion?
As mentioned before, the holiday of Shavuos commemorates the event of the Jews’ being given the Torah by G-d at Mount Sinai – also referred to in Hebrew as Kabbalas HaTorah. You might have heard that word Kabbalas before … as it is an alternate form of the word Kabbalah - which has been made wildly popular today by the likes of such celebrities as Madonna and A-Rod.
The dictionary offers the following definition of Kabbalah: A body of mystical teachings of rabbinical origin, often based on an esoteric interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The truth is that the dictionary definition is not 100% accurate. The word Kabbalah literally means “reception” or “received [tradition]”. The import of the word Kabbalah is that in order to understand and appreciate Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism, one must become a "receiver" and empty one's self of all preconceived notions.
This is true not only with regard to the deep, mystical wisdom contained in the Kabbalah. The entire revealed portion of Torah (i.e. the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, the Writings, the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Midrash, etc.) as well, can only be understood and appreciated by someone who empties his mind from any of his own ideas about what Torah should be, and becomes a vessel in which he can be a receiver of G-d’s wisdom. As we are taught at the very beginning of Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers 1:1): “Moses kibeil (received) the Torah from G-d at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua etc.”
I believe this is the reason why G-d chose to give His Holy Torah to the Jewish people in the desert. Just as the desert is barren, devoid of any vegetation, trees or water – it is totally empty – so, too, did G-d want the Jews to empty themselves of any previous ideas and baggage they might have brought with them to Sinai, so that they could become “receivers” of Torah and be impacted by its depth and wisdom.
It has been said that Prayer is man talking to G-d while Torah is G-d talking to man. And when G-d talks to us through the Torah that He gave us so many millennia ago and which we continue to study and grow from today, we would be wise to listen to what He is saying, instead of telling Him what we think and feel.
(A Rabbi I know once said in response to someone who challenged the cogent Torah idea he was presenting with an emotion-laden, yet intellectually lacking argument: “I hope that your feelings about this subject won’t prevent you from thinking about it.”)
Too often we read an inspiring Torah article or attend an interesting Torah class yet we fail to be impacted by its life-changing wisdom because we are so filled with our own feelings and views and notions that there is simply no room for the Torah to get in there.
This coming Tuesday evening, May 18th, as Jews all around the world begin celebrating the Festival of Shavuos and the receiving of G-d’s Torah on Mount Sinai, let’s not forgot where that beautiful “wedding” actually took place – and if we can empty ourselves of all our baggage and preconceived notions just like a desert, we will allow the beauty and wisdom of the Torah to penetrate our souls, enhancing our lives in so many ways that we can’t even imagine.
GOOD SHABBOS AND CHAG SAMEACH!