The Book of Numbers tells the story of the transition of the Israelites from freed slaves into a people capable of conquering and settling the land of Israel. After the ideal has been presented in Leviticus (and in the chapters on the construction of the Tabernacle in the second half of Exodus), Numbers continues and concludes this narrative for two and a half more Torah portions–and then it wades into the murky areas where the ideal is tested by the real. We will get to that story in due course. But for the moment, we can indulge for another week or two in the hopeful state of idealism.

The midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7) asks what is taught by the Hebrew name of Numbers, Bamidbar, from the opening words of the book: “And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.”

Why the wilderness (midbar)? From here the Sages taught that the Torah was given in three ways: fire, water, and wilderness. Fire: ‘And Mount Sinai was full of smoke’ (Ex. 19:18);  water: ‘the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped, the clouds also dropped water’ (Judges 5:4);  wilderness: ‘And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.’ And why was it given in these three ways? Just as these three are free and available to all, so too are the words of Torah, as it is said, ‘Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters’ (Is. 55:1). Another teaching: ‘And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.’ One who fails to make himself ownerless like the wilderness is unable to purchase wisdom and Torah.

Elaborating on one of the concluding themes of Leviticus (“For the earth is Mine”), the Midrash here focuses our attention on the act of surrender conveyed in the notion of wilderness. It partakes of something like the idea of national park land–but even more so. It is a place outside of and beyond civilization, a place defined in opposition to the domain where our lives take place. The wilderness is the place we send the scapegoat on Yom Kippur. The midbar is a place devoid of ownership.

And thus the midrash presents us with a paradox: only in giving up the posture of ownership can we purchase wisdom and Torah. Fire, water, wilderness: these are goods no one can lay claim to. They are open and available for all. Water and fire are rather obvious in this respect: they can simultaneously be tools for great good and great destruction. The wilderness, however, is not a force but a place, and perhaps more so a state of mind. It is the place we resist, the place we try to overcome as we erect the structures of civilization–not only physical structures, but the structures of language and thinking which make the world inhabitable for us. It is in this sense that the Sefas Emes writes of the Midbar, which shares the same letters as midaber–to speak: The wilderness, the midbar, is the place we unlearn and relearn our speech, the place we come to to reformulate our ideas of the world.

This then is the paradox of Torah: to lay claim to it we must surrender our claims. To hear what it has to say, we have to allow ourselves to forget what we thought we knew. This, of course, is an ideal. It will encounter the reality of the world in the coming weeks. But as the holiday of Shavuot approaches, as it always does when we read Bamidbar, we linger for a few more moments in this place where we can unlearn and learn anew, the wilderness.

Shabbat Shalom.

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