The parsha of Bamidbar – literally meaning “in the desert” – in most years, precedes the holiday of Shavuot which will occur in that very coming week. There is an obvious logic to this order of things since the revelation and acceptance of Torah by the Jewish people occurred in the desert of Sinai.
There are many interpretations and insights offered as to the choice of the desert to be the locality of the granting of the Torah. An idea that has struck me is that in the ancient world, deserts were not territorial properties of nations. Egypt did not own or control the Sinai desert. Only Bedouin nomads inhabited the space and they were not numerous in number or major players in the diplomatic scene of the times.
The granting of the Torah in the desert of Sinai signaled its universal extra-territorial status. Even though the Land of Israel occupies a special and central role in the Torah and in Jewish life and has many commandments that are capable of being followed and observed only there, and the Land of Israel imparts a special quality to all of the commandments performed there, nevertheless the Jewish people existed for thousands of years in very far-flung places in the world, and were bound together by their Torah commandments, values and traditions.
The Torah was granted to us in a desert, in a place of no particular sovereignty, language, culture or government. The Torah, in its general sense, has no limitations of space or time. It represents the Eternal and therefore takes on all of the characteristics of its Creator, Who is unlimited in space and time.
What makes a desert a desert is the lack of rain and water. As Israel has proven with its own Negev desert, water irrigation can push back the desert’s grip. However, all deserts have particular oases and water holes. These are of immense value simply because there is no other source of water in the desert. An oasis or water hole in a country much rained upon attracts little of any attention or worth.
The Torah foresaw that throughout Jewish history Jews would find themselves at times living in a spiritual desert. Immorality, licentiousness and decadence would reign in the general society. The righteous would be mocked and the wicked would be popularized and exalted. The spiritual desert, its emptiness and jadedness cannot slake our inner thirst for immortality and connection to our Creator.
And the Torah, given and nurtured in the desert would then be recognized as the ultimate oasis of life giving water. The Torah is always symbolized as being water in the words of the prophets and in the Talmud. The prophet implores us that “you who are thirsty [for Godliness and spirituality in your lives] go forth to fetch the water [of the Torah.] Perhaps only one who is wandering and suffering in the desert can truly appreciate the oasis and water hole. Our times demand our presence at the oasis that only the Torah provides for us.
Shabat shalom Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com