May 22, 2020
This portion that begins the Book of Numbers, Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20) is generally read on the Shabbat before the festival of Shavuot – z’man matan torateinu – “the time of the giving of our law,” the revelation at Sinai. So the Sages, believing that nothing is coincidental, searched for some connection between the two. To find one is not easy. There is nothing in the portion about the giving of the Torah. Instead it is about a census of the people. Nor is its setting helpful. We are told at the beginning that the events about to be described took place in “the wilderness of Sinai,” whereas when the Torah speaks about the great revelation, it talks about “Mount Sinai.” One is a general region, the other a specific mountain within that region. Furthermore, the Israelites at this stage are not walking towards Mount Sinai; they are preparing to leave. They are about to begin the second part of their journey, from Sinai to the Promised Land.
The Sages did their best to make a connection in this midrash:
“And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Wilderness” (1:1). Why the Sinai Wilderness? From here the Sages taught that the Torah was given through three things: fire, water, and wilderness. How do we know it was given through fire? From Exodus 19:18: “And Mount Sinai was all in smoke as God had come down upon it in fire.” How do we know it was given through water? As it says in Judges 5:4, “The heavens dripped and the clouds dripped water [at Sinai].” How do we know it was given through wilderness? [As it says above,] “And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Wilderness.” And why was the Torah given through these three things? Just as [fire, water, and wilderness] are free to all the inhabitants of the world, so too are the words of Torah free to them, as it says in Isaiah 55:1, “Oh, all who are thirsty, come for water… even if you have no money.” (Bemidbar Rabbah 1:7)
The Midrash takes three words associated with Sinai – fire (that was blazing on the mountain just before the revelation), water (based on a phrase in the Song of Deborah) and wilderness (as at the beginning of our portion, and it connects them by saying that “they are free to all the inhabitants of the world.” This is not the association most of us would make. Fire is associated with heat, warmth, energy. Water is associated with quenching thirst and making things grow. Wilderness is the space between: neither starting point nor destination, the place where you need signposts and a sense of direction. All three would therefore make good metaphors for the Torah. It warms. It energizes. It satisfies spiritual thirst. It gives direction. Yet that is not the approach taken by the Sages. What mattered to them is that all three are free.
Rather, the Sages made the connection between the wilderness and the giving of the Torah: it was open to everyone, and it was free. Neither lack of money nor of one’s status in society could stop you from learning Torah and acquiring distinction in a community in which scholarship was considered the highest achievement. This is one of Judaism’s most profound ideas: whatever you seek to create in the world, start with education. If you want to create a just and compassionate society, start with education. If you want to create a society of equal dignity, ensure that education is free and equal to all. That is the message the Sages took from the fact that we read Bamidbar before Shavuot, the festival that recalls that when God gave our ancestors the Torah, God gave it to all of them, and to the future us, equally.