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Parsha Bamidbar

06/06/2019 08:30:06 PM


As the title of Sefer Bamidbar suggests, the Midbar setting of the Jews’ journey to Israel was significant and defining of their stay there.  In numerous places, Chazal note that the word Midbar references different morals that can be learned from the Midbar and applied to the study of Torah.  Firstly, a Midbar is “no man’s land,” where there are no boundaries, private properties, and restricted areas; it is all open for the taking.  The opportunity for Torah, as well, is accessible and free for all to take, an idea that is both demonstrable and depicted by Chazal’s axiom that the crown of Torah invites all to come and take it.  In a different line of thinking, Chazal note that since a Midbar is defined as a place that people can only step on but not improve or enhance in any way, Midbar teaches humility and values of sharing.  Similarly, Torah’s home is a person who can act like a Midbar and humbly accept other people’s deficiencies and share what he knows with them.  Long before Western Culture embraced mass education, Judaism has always espoused education as the key to our survival and specifically by treating it as an absolute meritocracy where “the simple scholar is respected more than the ignorant Kohen Gadol.”    

The Sefas Emes explains the etymology of Midbar to be the makeup of the letters Daled, Beis, and Reish, the letters that spell the word “Daber”- to speak.  Citing other contexts of this root, the Sefas Emes finds that Daber can similarly mean to lead, because the harsher connotations of Daber suggest speaking with words that must followed.  Taking this one step further, he suggests that Midbar therefore means the “setting for Daber,” or a setting where existence is predicated on following a leader.  There are many environments were self-exploration is condoned and even encouraged, where there are places to plant and soil to work, but the desert’s harsh environments make self-exploration unfeasible and downright dangerous.  Void of recourses and direction, the desert is the one place where one can get truly lost and destroyed by the infertility of the land.  As the stories of Sefer Bamidbar tell, the Jews’ existence, experiences, and vicissitudes of their journey were all about their struggle of adapting to the Midbar’s setting and the necessity of learning to follow the Davar with obedience to God.  The famous words of Yirmiyah, “I (God) remember the kindness when you left Egypt…that you followed me into the desert in an unsowed land,” are describing the difficulties of living in a desert where there is no room to explore or sow and the key to survival lies in the ability to follow and listen.  Submission is against the natural desires of Man to search uninhibitedly, and God therefore appreciates that we position ourselves in a desert where we must follow Him.  The beauty of a desert is not in aesthetics, but rather in the pure listening and true following of a given calling that is ensured by the lack of distracting environmental surroundings.  Ideally, Torah is about following the calling and listening to God’s words, and in the desert setting where this thrives, there are no lines and private properties that represent all sorts of elitism, superiority, and aristocracy.  No one has their own water supply or their own estate they can claim as theirs; we are equalized by the very experience of drinking together from God’s well.  The difficulty of studying Torah is that we cannot simply explore freely with our minds, as we must rather use our minds to follow God’s mind.  As Jews, creativity and individuality are not open like a brush on a blank page, but instead the hard-earned emergence from following God in trying to figure out what He means.  These lessons are embodied in the desert and explain the significance of receiving Torah in such a setting and our continued growth there until we eventually settle the fertile land of Israel.   

Wed, June 7 2023 18 Sivan 5783