This Shabbat we begin the Book of Numbers, Sefer Bamidbar in Hebrew. It is called Numbers in English because this, the fourth book of the Torah, begins and ends with a census. It is called Bamidbar (in the desert or wilderness) in Hebrew because a Book of the Torah or a weekly Torah portion is always named after the first significant word in the book or portion–thus, according to Jewish literary naming conventions, Vayidaber Adonai el Moshe bamidbar (And God spoke to Moses in the desert) (Numbers 1:1).
Each year, when I take my 11th grade students to Israel, I take them for a hike into the heart of the Negev and ask them, why was Torah given in the wilderness of Sinai and not somewhere else?
This question is neither new nor original; our Sages of blessed memory asked it more than 2,000 years ago. Their answer, from Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7 was, “Just as the desert is 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.’”
Another explanation: Anyone who does not make themselves ownerless like the desert cannot acquire the wisdom and the Torah. Therefore it says, “the Sinai Wilderness.”
Our rabbis wanted us to understand that the wisdom of Torah, the moral lessons of Jewish religion, are available to all, regardless of financial status, because all human beings are equal in the eyes of God and financial status is a meaningless measure of human worth. Further, if we want to acquire Torah, we must come to it with an open mind and heart.
This is one meaning of being ownerless. Another is that Torah has value for its own sake, so to use it to advance a political agenda or to claim that only one person or group understands Torah is a desecration of Torah, because it is here for all of us.
Finally, the desert is a place where survival depends on noticing small details: a single small shrub, a lizard, a bird, or a tiny spring of water. We must slow down, quiet our inner chatter and open ourselves up to God’s “still, small voice” if we want to learn Torah.
May the lessons of the desert teach us to be open to the spiritual possibilities of our lives.