This week, we begin the book of Bamidbar- Numbers- with the Parsha of the same name. The word “Bamidbar” actually means “in the desert”, and although much of the Sedra is a census of sorts, detailing the Israelites’ families, and the laws of the Camp and Levites, its first line- “G-d spoke to Moshe in the desert of Sinai”- tells us of the giving of the Torah and it’s very special role.
Different commentators have attempted to interpret this line. What does it mean “In the desert of Sinai”? Why does it specify that the Torah was given there? Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai) tells us, “The Torah was given to the people of Israel in the ownerless desert. For if it were given in the Land of Israel, the residents of the Land of Israel would say, “It is ours”; and if it were given in some other place, the residents of that place would say, “It is ours.” Therefore it was given in the wilderness, so that anyone who wishes to acquire it may acquire it.”
The last sentence of his interpretation provides the basis for a major tenet of Chassidic belief. The Torah is every Jew’s heritage. In fact, every Jew is taught the entire Torah in his or her mother’s womb, only to forget it before birth; and this connection to the Torah remains with the child throughout their life- even if they aren’t aware of it. The spark of Moshe Rabbenu, who transcribed the Torah, lies within every Jew, and through this their souls cleave to G-d’s teachings.
This is just one interpretation of the verse. Meanwhile, we read in Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, “”Why was the Torah given in the desert? To teach us that if a person does not surrender himself to it like the desert, he cannot merit the words of Torah. And to teach us that just as the desert is endless, so is the Torah without end”.
Indeed, it is true that an individual must surrender himself to the Torah. We can’t pick and choose; keep the bits we like and understand and discard the rest. We need to accept the entire Torah, every word of it, and submit to it’s Creator. It is only then that we will discover the true meaning of the term “The Torah [is] without end”, as the study of Torah and keeping of its mitzvos promises us a place in Olam Haba, the world to come.
The desert in which G-d gave the Torah tells us a lot about it, and it’s through these few intricate words that we can understand the rest of the Parsha, and also the upcoming festival of Shovuos, on which we receive the Torah anew. Every year, we stand before Sinai and accept the mitzvos; and every year, we have a chance to rededicate ourselves to the Torah and examine our relationship with it. On this note, I would like to wish all my readers a gut yontiff. May Shovuos bring you ever closer to the gift of Torah!