Parashat Bamidbar “Torah for Everyone”

Posted: 29 May 2017 07:14 AM PDTBefore the Sinai Desert was returned to Egypt in the Peace treaty of 1978,  it was possible to take a bus directly from Tel Aviv to the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, Sharm el Sheik.  I boarded that bus alone on my Spring Break of 1972 when I spent a year in Israel.  I intended to camp out on the beach and snorkel on the reefs of the Red Sea off Sharm El Sheik. At that time Sharm El Sheik had some of the best snorkeling in the world. There were only a few of us on that bus, including a Bedouin man. We traveled for hours through seemingly interminable and vast expanses of wilderness. When we think of “wilderness” in North America, we imagine tracts of virgin forests with wild rivers flowing through them untouched by human hands. We think of nature “untamed” by humankind. The “wilderness of Sinai”, however, is anything but green.  Through the window of my bus I saw immense rugged landscapes of reds and browns, with hills, mountains, canyons and plains passing by.  Suddenly, the Bedouin man traveling with us pulled the cord above the window of the bus, requesting a stop. I looked out the window for a bus stop sign or a bus shelter. The bus pulled over to the shoulder of the road, and the Bedouin got off — IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE!  There was nobody to pick him up, not in a jeep, not on a camel. He descended from the bus and simply took off on foot to heaven knows where.

That is where our Torah portion for the week picks up this Shabbat – BaMidbar – in the wilderness. Elsewhere, the Torah describes the wilderness of Sinai as a “howling wasteland, a land not sown; a land of deserts and pits, a land of drought and darkness, a land where no human being dwells.”  Which raises a question – Why would G-d choose such an inhospitable, barren and forbidding place to give the Jewish people the Torah? Although we sing in our Torah service – Ki Mitzion Tetze Torah – The Torah “goes out” to the world from Jerusalem, G-d decided to givethe Torah to the Jewish people in this wilderness. Would it not have been better to wait until they reached the Holy Land in order to bestow the Holy Torah upon the Holy People?

A number of reasons have been put forth for the giving of the Torah in the wilderness. If the Torah had been given in Jerusalem, some say, the Jewish people might have thought that it was relevant only when we were living in the Holy Land or the Holy City. By giving the Torah in the wilderness it was made clear that it was to be followed wherever a Jewish person lived.

Rabbi Tanchuma gives another reason that the Torah was given in the wilderness. He points out that just as nobody owns the wilderness, so no people have exclusive right to the Torah. We can own the Torah, but we are not its owners. It is free and is open to all. A beautiful example of that maxim in action  in our own congregation is the upcoming Adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah service on June 10. Seven people who chose to embrace the Torah as adults will be called to the Torah for aliyahs and will lead the Afternoon Service.

However, one does not have to be Jewish in order to learn from or be inspired by the Torah.  This counts as a third reason why the Torah was given in the wilderness. Were it given in Jerusalem, some say, the Jewish people, and the world, might think it was only for Jews. We might think that only Jews could have a genuine connection to G-d. G-d gave us the Torah in the Wilderness of Sinai to teach us that there is much to learn from Torah for everybody, Jews and non-Jews alike. That is one of the reasons that it means a lot to me as your Rabbi that we often have students and guests during services from different schools and different religious backgrounds. In the process of learning more about Jewish prayer and ritual, they also learn a little Torah.  I also love it that that non-Jewish members of our community at-large come to study with us on Thursday and Shabbat mornings. Some come a few times, and some come regularly for years to study Torah with us. I also know that people from many different religious backgrounds read the sermons that I post on line through our website or my sermon blog.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Hannina Bar Papa gives a sermon where he envisions G-d appearing on the Day of Judgement with a Torah in his arms. God declares, “Whoever occupied him or herself with the study of Torah, come and receive your reward.” This statement is addressed not only to the Jewish people, but to all of the religions and all the nations of the world. This leads Rabbi Meir to comment that “even an idol worshipper who is engaged in the study of Torah is like a Kohen Gadol – a High Priest”. That is, the idolater deserves to be treated with the same degree of respect as the most important leader in Jewish religious life. If any person comes to study Torah out of a search for truth, or to deepen his or her relationship to G-d, then they should be encouraged to explore the wisdom that Judaism has to offer. The Torah, as it states in the Book of Deuteronomy, is a “Morasha Kehillat Ya-akov” – “A precious inheritance of the Jewish People”. It is an inheritance worth sharing with the rest of humanity.

Shabbat Shalom