TORAH TUESDAYS: PARSHAT BAMIDBAR
BY HENNIE BLACK
In this week’s Torah portion of BAMDBAR, WE LOOK AT TWO QUALITIES—SUGGESTED BY THE PHYSICAL LANDSCAPE OF THE DESERT AND THE CENSUS—THAT WILL HELP US PREPARE TO RECEIVE THE TORAH ONCE AGAIN ON THE UPCOMING HOLIDAY OF SHAVUOT.
This week we begin the fourth of the five books of the Torah, Bamidbar, the first parsha of which is also called Bamidbar. The parsha of Bamidbar is always read before the upcoming holiday of Shavuot.
The name “Bamidbar” [in the wilderness] sheds light into the first connection between the parsha and Shavuot. The Talmud states that “when one makes himself into a wilderness, the Torah will be given to him/her as a gift.” But what does it mean to make yourself into a wilderness?
The wilderness’s vastness and barrenness represents simplicity and humility—a state of being that is open, egoless, and humble, the very qualities one needs to be receptive to Torah and learning. According to Rashi, the wilderness is ownerless and free for everyone. Similarly, the Torah is available and accessible to everyone. No one person can claim exclusive rights to the Torah.
While there was only one giving, it is up to each Jew to receive the Torah uniquely—in a way that conforms to each person’s level of understanding. There are as many different receivings of the Torah as there are Jews. It is up to each and every one of us what we choose to internalize and receive.
The Shema prayer that we recite each day reads, “Let these words that I command you today be upon your heart”. Why does G-d say “upon your heart”? Shouldn’t it enter into our hearts? G-d does not force it into our hearts; the words are on our hearts, and it is up to each person to decide how to receive it, internalize it, and make it his own.
The importance of humility in achieving an open state of mind is highlighted in a well-known midrash that describes why G-d specifically chose Mount Sinai as the place to give the Torah: All the mountains fought to be chosen for the opportunity, arrogantly asserting their credentials as being the tallest or widest. However Mount Sinai, being the most humble of all, kept quiet. In spite of Mt. Sinai’s small stature and barrenness, it was chosen as the perfect mountain for the Torah to be given on.
In addition to individual humility, this parsha highlights another characteristic of utmost importance: unity. We learn in this parsha about the census (counting) of the Jewish people, as well as the details relating to the formation of each tribe’s encampment around the Mishkan. Each person was counted and each person knew the place of his encampment.
Yes, there were separate tribes, each with its own flag and insignia, but they still came together as one nation. Each member of a tribe recognized his purpose and his unique role to play as part of the larger collective of the Jewish people, constituting a unique national identity.
This unity was on full display at the nation’s inception: as the Jewish people stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai “as one man with one heart” and proclaimed in unison “We will do and we will listen.”
All of us, each and every year prepare ourselves to receive the Torah anew on Shavuot. May we make ourselves into a wilderness with open and humble hearts. May we stand united- embracing our individual journeys–as we recommit ourselves to receiving the Torah.
Wishing you all a shabbat shalom and happy Shavuot!