May 26, 2017
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We begin a new book of Torah tonight. In English, we call it the book of Numbers, and indeed this first portion centers on the details of a military census. But in Hebrew, it’s name is “Bemidbar” – In Wilderness. It begins with the words “Vay’daber Adonai el Moshe B’Midbar Sinai.” God spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai.
Every year, the calendar dictates that we begin this book just before Shavuot – when we celebrate receiving the Torah. A short PSA here – Shavuot begins this coming Tuesday; please join us for services! Beginning this book of wandering just before we celebrate the gift of Torah reminds us that God did not give us the Torah while we were still in Egypt, and did not wait until we had reached the promised land. Rather, we received the Torah “bemidbar” – in wilderness.
Generations of rabbis have pondered the connection between Torah and the wilderness. Tonight I want to focus on one such connection. Twice in the Talmud, we are told that if a person “makes himself like a wilderness,” he will be worthy of Torah. What on earth does this mean? In what way should we make ourselves like a wilderness? In each of the Talmud’s retellings, the answer is slightly different. In one, we read: “If a person makes himself like a wilderness, belonging to no one, Torah will be given to him as a gift.” In the other: “If a person makes himself like a wilderness, whom everyone may tread upon, his Torah study will endure.” So, to receive the gift of Torah, the Talmud suggests, we need to treat ourselves as though we belong to no one – as though no one has any claim to us. And in order for our understanding of Torah to endure, we must allow everyone to make their way across our path, even if it means we are a bit trampled.
The period between Passover and Shavuot is known as the Omer. It is a time of serious reflection and preparation, as we anticipate receiving Torah, and we traditionally count off each of the 49 days, in anticipation of revelation. This year, many in this congregation have taken part in this counting and reflection, with a focus on how to engage in the sacred art of constructive disagreement. We are taught that when we received Torah at Mount Sinai, each Israelite heard God’s voice differently. And in these polarized times, we have been trying to learn how we can listen to those to whom different truths have been revealed. We have been asking, “How can we find holiness in those with whom we deeply disagree.” In doing this, I realized this week, we have been unwittingly following the Talmud’s instructions to make ourselves like a wilderness.
First, the Talmud tells us that to receive the gift of Torah – of understanding – we must ensure that, like the desert, we belong to no one. And indeed, over these weeks, we have worked to challenge the assumptions and biases that tether and lay claim to us, and keep us from seeing things from other perspectives. We have worked to make sure that FoxNews, or CNN, or the NYT, do not have a monopoly on our understanding of what is true.
Second, we are told that for our learning to endure, we must make ourselves like a land on which everyone can tread. When I read this, I bristled. Humility is essential to learning, but surely, the key to meriting Torah cannot be allowing everyone to “walk all over us.” But think about the desert. If in our wanderings we continue to follow the same path for long enough, we will eventually get stuck in a rut. The path will become permanent, and routine, and we will miss out on other directions our wandering might take us. But if we decide to follow the footsteps of others along a number of different paths, to see where they might lead, we could end up at an oasis that we never would have seen. So it is with learning. If we allow ourselves to interact only with those who are following our path, we will get stuck in a rut, albeit with company. But if we allow ourselves to open our eyes to many different wanderers, and see where their paths might lead, we will gain a broader understanding of the variety and expanse of the world we live in. This may in fact, require us to be humble, and our beliefs may get trod upon. But for our learning to endure, the Talmud teaches, we need to make ourselves like a desert with a lot of foot traffic, even if we get a little banged up in the process.
The Omer ends on Tuesday, with Shavuot. But we have the rest of our lives to pursue Torah. In the days, and weeks, and years to come, may we each make our heart like a wilderness, free and open to all, marked with the many and varied paths of those we encounter on our journey.