Parshat Bamidbar: Numbers 1:1-4:20; Hosea 2:1-22
This Shabbat, we begin the reading of the book of Bamidbar, Numbers, which chronicles much of the journey of the Exodus. We always begin the reading of Bamidbar very close to the holiday of Shavuot, the holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
While this is a coincidence of the calendar, there is a lesson to be learned from the connection between the book and the meaning of Torah in our lives.
If we read the words of the Torah as being in chronological order (which we should not always do), the beginning of the book describes the start of the journey to Canaan which, while long and arduous, was intended to be a relatively direct one. But, later in the book, we read the narrative about the people’s rebellion in the wake of the report of the 12 scouts sent by Moses to report on the land. This rebellion led to God’s decision to have them wander in the desert for 40 years so that their children would be the ones to enter the land.
When a child is born, we all wish for him or her a direct, uncomplicated journey through life. But, we know that no journey through life is that simple and direct. While we all can see many points in life that are times for praise and celebration, there are days of sadness and disappointment and maybe days in which we might see ourselves as wandering aimlessly through a wilderness like our ancestors surely felt at times during those long 40 years.
But, in our tradition, we have a road map that never leaves us, even, or one might say, especially, in those difficult times and that is the road map of Torah.
Whenever we feel lost, for whatever reason, the words of Torah are there to elevate our spirits, give us hope and challenge us to continue to put one foot in front of the other and continue the journey. The wisdom of our tradition, in narrative, law or poetry, inspires us to believe in the ultimate meaning in our lives and not to despair. The process of midrash, of commentary, gives us all the opportunity to add our own personally meaningful touch to Torah to allow it to become even more of a personal guide.
Many philosophers and Torah commentators wondered why the Torah was given in a desert. I believe the lesson to be learned from this is that the vast, open spaces of the desert can be compared to the vastness of the experience of our lives and that Torah can reach every aspect of our lives, positive or negative. Torah accompanies us on the long and arduous and beautiful and glorious journey.
The content of Bamidbar is the most varied of any book of the Torah. Ritual, law and narrative are woven together to produce a beautiful text. So, too, we should weave the experiences of our lives into a beautiful work of art by having Torah, in all of its forms, be our guide along the way.
Robert Dobrusin is a rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor.
How would you answer the question: Why was the Torah given in the desert?