by Yossi Jacobson
This week’s Torah portion, named “Bamidbar,” which means “in the desert,” is always read on the Sabbath preceding the holiday of Shavuos, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Sinai, more than 3,300 years ago, in the year 1313 BCE (1).
One reason for this is because the Torah was given “bamidbar,” in a desert. But that only carries the question over: Of all places, why indeed was Torah given in a desert? Our sages describe Sinai as the marriage between G-d and His people (2). Whoever heard of getting married in a barren desert? The Torah should have been given in the Hilton or the Waldorf-Astoria, not in a barren desert?
And why was it really necessary for the Jewish people to wander 40 years in this desert before entering the Promised Land? Was 210 years in Egypt, including more than 80 years of hard labor, not enough? Why liberate them from Egypt only to put them through another 40 years in the wilderness (3)?
There are three primary explanations for the unique relationship between Torah and the desert.
1) Had the Torah been given in a civilized city or community, people might have defined it as a product of a particular culture, milieu and environment. Sophisticated academics would explain to us the particular “genre” of Torah, as if it were an outdated, modern or post-modern piece of literature, an epic or lyric, a work of history, law, tragedy or philosophy. They would enlighten us as to whether Torah belonged to the time of the Athenians, the Hellenistic age, the Greco-Roman period, the Byzantine age or another period of civilization. Torah would be labeled, classified and qualified. It would be “put into perspective.”
But Torah cannot be put into a particular cultural or artistic perspective. Torah is not culture, literature, art, history, law or fiction. Torah embodies the eternal truths about existence, life and destiny that speak in every language, in every culture, in every age, to every soul. The Torah cannot be reduced to a particular time frame or reference point. It benefits all the arts but never competes with them. Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel put it thus (4):
“Why does the Bible surpass everything created by man? Why is there no work worthy of comparison with it? Why is there no substitute for the Bible, no parallel to the history it has engendered? Why must all who seek the living G-d turn to its pages?
“Set the Bible beside any of the truly great books produced by the genius of man and see how they are diminished in stature. The Bible shows no concern with literary form, with verbal beauty, yet its absolute sublimity rings through all its pages. Its lines are so monumental and at the same time so simple that whomever tries to compete with them produces either a commentary or a caricature. It is a work we do not know how to assess. Other books you can estimate, you can measure, compare; the Bible you can only extol. Its insights surpass our standards. There is nothing greater. In three thousand years it has not aged a day. It is a book that cannot die. Oblivion shuns its pages.”
“Absolute sublimity.” Such a work must be taught and transmitted in a desert. A desert is not associated with any particular culture or form of living. A desert is barren, raw, plain. A desert is not sophisticated; it is real(5).
2) Had the Torah been given in a particular city or community, its inhabitants would have claimed copyrights on it. Had the Torah been given in Boro Park, Crown Heights, Williamsburg or Monsey, these communities would claim “ownership” on Torah. “We know how to interpret Torah, how to assess it, how to appreciate it. It belongs to us.” The same would hold true if the Torah was given in Lakewood or the Upper West Side.
The desert, on the other hand, is ownerless. Nobody wants the desert (besides the Arabs, once the Jews settle it). It belongs to nobody. Torah, too, is ownerless. It belongs to every Jewish soul on earth. Nobody holds any “rights” to the Torah. It is the living, vibrant conversation of G-d with every living creature (6).
Life in the Fast Lane
3) Had the Torah been given in a civilized and splendid terrain, we might have believed that its objective was to guide the beautiful life and the the splendid heart.
But that is not Torah.
Torah does not tell us that life is easy and that faith is bliss. On the contrary, we were placed in a personal and global wilderness, and life is a battle. And it is precisely this battle that G-d intended us to face, day in and day out. Do not be disturbed or demoralized, the Torah teaches, by your challenges, your demons, your inconsistencies and your weaknesses. Do not be shaken when you do not live up to your highest aspirations, and often do not actualize or maintain your inspiration. Do not be discouraged, because the Torah was given precisely to jelp us pave a road in the barren desert of the human psyche, to create a highway in the jungle of history.
Had the Torah been given in a beautiful city, then all we would have is a guide on how to live in beauty, in ecstasy. But Torah came to teach us how to confront our wildnerness and to transform a desert into paradise.
That is how the spiritual masters explained the reason for the Torah being given on a mountain. Why a mountain, and not flat land?
A mountain is essentially elevated earth. That is the profound message of Torah: With earth, gravel, dirt and mud, you must battle. That is intrinsic to the human condition and the reality of our world. Yet you must remember that your mission is to elevate the earth, to introduce holiness and G-dliness into a mundane and soiled world (7).
G-d did not desire holy people doing holy things; he wanted unholy people doing holy things (8). He desired that earthly human beings become mountains of moral dignity and divine grace.
1) Rambam Hilchos Tefilah 13:2. Tur and Schulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 428:4.
2) Mishnah Taanis 26b. Midrashim and commenataries on the Song of Songs. Cf. Rambam Hilchos Teshuvah chapter 10.
3) The Bible records that the wandering 40 years was a punishment for the sin of the spies who persuaded the people to reject their mission of entering the land of Israel. But certainly, G-d could have punished them in different ways. Why did He choose this particular consequence?
4) G-d In Search Of Man pp. 240-242.
5) A similar idea is expressed in Midrash Rabah Bamidbar 19:26 and Midrash Tanchumah Chukas 21.
6) Yalkut Shemoni to Yesro Remez 275.
7) Sefer Hamaamarim 5655 p. 188.
See Tanya chapters 27; 36.
It’s Avner’s Birthday!
Community Shavuot Dairy Lunch | Celebrate as one
You are cordially invited to join us for a scrumptious Shavuot catered dairy feast, together with family & friends.
Lunch will follow morning services (10:00am) and reading of the Ten Commandments (Approx 11:30) on the first day of Shavuot, Friday May 29, 2009 at 1:30pm at Cong. Kol Israel of Prospect Heights located at 603 St Johns Pl (bet Classon/Franklin Ave)
To RSVP please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 347.787.0864 $18 Cover $10 Child.
Looking forward to seeing you there and sharing in the festivities together.
Rabbi Ari & Chaya Kirschenbaum
To learn more about the holiday, Click here to Launch complete Shavuot holiday Site
Avner’s 4th Birthday!
We will also be having a special children’s Shavuot Ice Cream Party in honor of our dear son Meir Avner’s 4th birthday on Shavuot. open to all and free of charge.
Join us anytime between 10am & 4pm on Friday, May 29 for a hearty scoop or two.
Sponsored by Avner’s proud Mommy and Tatty. Program will run throughout services and lunch.
Shavuot late night Torah study.
Prepare for the giving of the Torah by studying together and enjoying each others company.
Enter into the Orchard of Torah’s timeless wisdom led by Rabbi Ari and You.
Explore Shavuot through three aspects of Torah: Halacha, Kabbala & Aggada/Tales
Thursday, May 28, session begins at 9:30 – 12:00am Late Night Learning at Rabbi Ari’s home, 765 St Johns Pl #2A 11216 (off Rogers Ave)
Coffee and Refreshments served. No Reservations
Learning session dedicated in Loving Memory of Ezra Shlomo ben Moshe & Shani Weidenfeld Z”L.
What is Shavuot?
Shavuot marks the anniversary of the day when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is the second of the three major festivals (Passover being the first, and Sukkot the third), occuring exactly fifty days after the second day of Passover.
This is a biblical holiday complete with special prayers, holiday candle lighting and kiddush. During the course of the holiday we don’t go to work, drive, write or switch on or off electric devices. We are permitted to cook and to carry outdoors.
The word “Shavuot” means “weeks”; it marks the completion of the seven-week counting period between Passover and Shavuot. During these seven weeks, the Jewish people cleansed themselves of the scars of Egyptian slavery and became a holy nation, ready to enter into an eternal covenant with G‑d with the giving of the Torah.
On this day, we received a gift from Above which we could not have achieved with our own limited faculties. We received the ability to reach and touch the Divine; not only to be cultivated human beings, but Divine human beings who are capable of rising above and beyond the limitations of nature.
Before the giving of the Torah, we were a family and a community. The experience of Sinai bonded us into a new entity: the Jewish people, the Chosen Nation. This holiday is likened to our wedding day — beneath the wedding canopy of Mount Sinai, G‑d betrothed us to Him. G‑d swore eternal devotion to us, and we in turn pledged everlasting loyalty to Him.
Every year on the holiday of Shavuot, we reenact this historic moment. G‑d re-gives the Torah, and we lovingly reaccept, and reaffirm our fidelity to Him alone.
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In my alter-life, I’m a teacher. Worse, a preacher. Someone with the naiveté to believe that in this day and age one person can actually instruct another’s life.
As soon as people hear what I do, I get lots of advice. I must have heard from hundreds of generous people who, though they adhere to a “live and let live” ethic, are nevertheless willing to advise me on my interventionist endeavors.
Since there’s no way of knowing how long such generosity will continue, I’ve decided to summarize the advice I’ve received over the years for future practitioners of my craft. Luckily, it basically boils down to three important no-no’s. If you avoid these three mistakes, you’re well on the way to becoming a successful educator.
Piece of Advice #1: Don’t try to challenge consensus. There are certain arguments that you’re just not going to win. Once an opinion or practice becomes entrenched in a society, you’re wasting your time. Save your energy and talents for telling people what they do want to hear. You’ll accomplish much more that way. (Unfortunately, this piece of advice came after the speech in which I claimed that a Jewish marriage, by definition, is a union between a man and a woman, both of whom are Jewish. Luckily, it came before the panel discussion in which I was going to suggest that ceding territory to a people who hate you enough to kill their own children to kill some of yours won’t bring peace but more bloodshed.)
Piece of Advice #2: Don’t bother with the lost cases. Those who have gone beyond the pale are too far gone to bring back. If they’re doing something that’s so wrong, there’s obviously something very wrong with them. Save your energy and talents for normal people. You’ll accomplish much more that way. (That piece of advice came just in the nick of time. I was actually scheduled to give a course in “The Non-Violent Resolution of Conflict” at Riker’s Island.)
Piece of Advice #3: Stay away from the G-d stuff. Unless there’s some sort of angle. If it’s in the context of philosophy or theoretical physics, that’s ok. Spirituality is fine, too. But G-d as in “We do that because G-d said so” is way out there in uh-uh land. It just won’t wash.
There are three places where the Torah refers to the task of the educator: 1) in the 17th chapter of Leviticus, where it speaks of the prohibition to eat blood; 2) in Leviticus 22, where it forbids the consumption of insects; 3) in the opening verses of the parshah of Emor (Leviticus 21), where it discusses the laws of ritual impurity pertaining to priests. In each of these three places the Torah employs language that is interpreted by the Talmud to mean that “the elders are enjoined to charge the youngsters” regarding these laws.
Jews have always been big on education. Indeed, the idea that elders do, indeed, have something of value with which to charge the youngsters — and that the youngsters will actually listen to the elders — is largely responsible for fact that we’re still around after 4,000 years. But why does the Torah choose these three particular instances to convey this idea?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that these three laws represent three areas in which it is commonly believed that education is futile — that there’s no point in trying to influence another person.
The Talmud points out that in biblical times, the consumption of blood was commonplace. Society literally “wallowed in blood” as a dietary staple. To forbid the consumption of blood in 1300 BCE Canaan was akin to, say, forbidding hamburgers in 21st century America. Insects, on the other hand, are things “that are repulsive to human being.” Forbidding them seems equally futile — if a person has descended to such dietary degradation, would he desist simply because his “elders” instruct him to?
Finally, the laws of ritual impurity violate the third educational no-no. In general, the mitzvot of the Torah can be divided into three categories: a) Laws such as “do not kill” and “do not steal,” which any logical mind would have conceived on its own; b) Testimonials, such as resting on Shabbat and eating matzah on Passover, which serve a ritualistic-commemorative function; we may not have thought these up on our own, but after they’ve been given to us, they make sense; c) completely supra-rational Decrees. A prominent example of the “decrees” are the laws of ritual impurity, which defy all logical explanation; we observe them simply and exclusively because G-d told us to.
Education, the Torah is telling us, works not because and when the educator is convincing and the educated is willing to be convinced. It works because and when it carries the power of truth. And a truth is true regardless of where society stands vis-à-vis this truth and regardless of where an individual stands vis-à-vis this truth.
And a truth is true also when our only handle on its truth is the fact that G-d said so.
Upcoming event. Save the date Tuesday, May 12th
Lag B’Omer – A Mysticaly Joyous Day Commemorating The Passing of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai The Author of the ZOHAR Come Celebrate as a Community Tuesday, May 12th
7:30pm @ Franklin Park 618 St. John’s Place, Brooklyn, NY
(between Classon Ave. and Franklin Ave.) Take the 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 to Franklin Ave.
Lag BaOmer — this year, May 12, 2009 — is a festive day on the Jewish calendar, celebrating the anniversary of the passing of the great sage and mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar. It also commemorates another event. In the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, a plague raged amongst the disciples of the great sage Rabbi Akiva. On Lag BaOmer the dying ceased. Click here to read more…