Beduin ride camels in the Sinai Peninsula in 2006.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week, we finished reading the Book of Leviticus – the third of the five books of the Bible, whose main focus is laws pertaining to the Temple and the kohanim, laws of purity and impurity. This week, we begin the fourth book – Numbers.
It is interesting to discern the chronological division of the five books of the Torah. The Book of Genesis encompasses thousands of years of history, up to Jacob’s descent to Egypt with his family. Exodus and Leviticus span about 200 years, from the time Genesis ends until the end of the first year following the exodus from Egypt. Numbers describes various events that occurred over the next 39 years of the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert, until they reached the entrance of the Land of Israel. The last book, Deuteronomy, describes the last few months in the desert and the parting of the great leader, Moses, from his people.
The Book of Numbers (its Hebrew name, Bamidbar, means “in the desert”) tells us about the long stay in the desert en route from Egypt to the Promised Land.
The most significant event to occur in the desert was the revelation at Mount Sinai, when the entire nation heard the Ten Commandments, received the Torah, and entered into an eternal covenant with God, with a purpose and role that have accompanied the Jewish nation in the thousands of years since then.
The sages of the Midrash focused on this unique event when the Torah was given and asked, “Why was the Torah given in the desert?” This is not a naive question. It stems from a deep theological-religious perspective that sees the desert as a place that does not mesh with the Torah’s orientation.
If we thought that Judaism wished to encourage solitude and isolation and to focus on whatever is beyond reality, then the desert would be the appropriate place for giving the Torah. But the sages who asked this question understood that the desert conflicts with the Torah’s orientation, which is to create an active society that is motivated by morals and sacred values. Seemingly, the Torah should have been given in a city, a place where people live active lives.
The answer given by our sages reveals basic values that could change the perception of Judaism: “Just as the desert is free for anyone in the world, so the words of the Torah are free for anyone in the world” (Midrash Numbers Raba 1:7).
The phrase “free for anyone in the world” raises two points. First, the Torah, like the desert, is free. The desert is a place that does not demand specific traits or skills from man. In the desert, you are who you are, without additions and with nothing to hide. So, too, with the Torah. Judaism does not turn to people with specific skills, a certain level of education, or particular personality traits. It is not a spiritual method suitable only for a few. Judaism presents a wide and encompassing vision and lifestyle that do not have preconditions.
They appeal to and are suitable for any person, wherever he is, however he is.
The second interesting point is the comparison between the desert and the Torah in the phrase “for anyone in the world.” The desert is a place devoid of a specific culture, disconnected from civilizations with their perspectives and norms. The desert is a place where man can create his own culture and act of his own free will.
Historical experience shows that Judaism survived the influences of a great many and varied cultures, in a great many places. This shows us that the Torah does not shape itself to fit in with any particular culture or generation. Judaism offers a human, existential framework that can be applied to any generation or culture.
In this regard, Judaism – like the desert – is “for anyone in the world.” The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.