‘And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they came out of the Land of Egypt’ (Numbers 1:1)
Bamidbar, or “In the desert,” is the name by which this fourth of the Five Books of Moses is most popularly known – an apt description of the 40 years of the Israelite desert wanderings which the book records.
Indeed, this desert period serves as the precursor of – as well as a most appropriate metaphor for – the almost 2,000 years of homeless wandering from place to place which characterized much of Jewish history before the emergence of our Jewish State in 1948.
The Hebrew word for desert, midbar, is also pregnant with meanings and allusions which in many ways have served as a beacon for our Jewish exile. The root noun from which midbar is built is D-B-R, which means leader or shepherd. After all, the most ancient occupation known to humanity is shepherding, and the desert is the most natural place for the shepherd to lead his flock: the sheep can comfortably wander in a virtual no-man’s-land and graze on the vegetation of the various oases or their outskirts without the problem of stealing from private property or harming the ecology of settled habitations. And perhaps D-B-R means leader or shepherd because it also means “word”: The shepherd directs the flock using meaningful sounds and words, and the leader of the people must also have the ability to inspire and lead with the verbal message he communicates. Indeed, the “Ten Words” (or Ten Commandments, Aseret Hadibrot) were revealed in the Sinai desert, and they govern Israel – as well as a good part of the world – to this very day.
Moreover, wherever the Israelites wandered in the desert, they were always accompanied by the portable desert Mishkan, or Sanctuary, a word which is derived from Shechina, Divine Presence. However, God was not in the Sanctuary; even the greatest expanse of the heavens cannot contain the Divine Presence, declared King Solomon when he dedicated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 8:27). It was rather God’s word, dibur, which was in the Sanctuary, in the form of the “Ten Words” on the Tablets of Stone preserved in the Holy Ark, as well as the ongoing and continuing word of God which He would speak (vedibarti, Exodus 25:22) from between the cherubs on the ends of the Kapporet above the Holy Ark. It was by means of these divine words that even the desert, the midbar – a metaphor for an inhospitable and even alien exile environment which is boiling hot by day, freezing cold by night, and deficient in water which is the very elixir of life – can become transformed into sacred space, the place of the divine word (dibur). And indeed those words from the desert of Mount Sinai (diburim) succeeded in sanctifying the many Marrakeshes and Vilnas and New Yorks of our wanderings! God’s word can transform a desert – any place and every place – into a veritable sanctuary; indeed the world is a midbar waiting to become a dvir (sanctuary) by means of God’s dibur, communicated by inspired leaders, dabarim.
I believe that this understanding will serve to answer another question which is asked by our sages. The Mechilta to Parshat Yitro queries why God’s Revelation was given in a “par’osia” – a desert, a no-man’s-land, an open space – rather than at Mount Moriah, the place of Abraham’s sacrifice later to become the Temple Mount. Is it not strange that the most important message – “kerygma” – given to Israel emanated from a mountaintop in a desert outside Israel rather than from the sacred land which God Himself bequeathed to His chosen people? The response given by the Mechilta has many ramifications for us to today. The midrash maintains that had the Torah been given on the Temple Mount the Israelites would have assumed that it was only for them. God specifically chose a “par’osia” in order to demonstrate that the Torah was ultimately meant for the entire world; in the very words of the Mechilta, “Let any human being who wishes to accept the Torah take it upon himself.”
This will help us understand the midrash in the beginning of “V’zot habracha” which pictures God as first offering the Torah to the Edomites of Mount Seir and then to the Ishmaelites of Mount Paran (BT Avoda Zara 2b, see also Rashi to Deut. 33:2). Unfortunately, they were not ready to accept it at that time; only Israel was willing to say, “We shall perform [the commandments] and we shall internalize them.” It then became our task as a “Kingdom of Priest-Teachers and a Holy Nation” to expose and eventually teach the Torah as “a light unto the nations of the world.” And eventually there will be a second revelation in which “God will inform us a second time before the eyes of every living being that He is to be their God,” a prayer which we repeat every Sabbath in the Kedusha of the Musaf Amida prayer. The desert then becomes a symbol of a no-man’s-land which is also an every-man’s-land.
If the word can sanctify even a desert it can certainly sanctify every other place on our planet.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, currently celebrating their 30th anniversary, and chief rabbi of Efrat.