We open the forth book of the Torah, known by different names in English and Hebrew. The English follows the custom of all translations to name the book after its major theme: the book of Numbers opens with a census of the people and concerns the ordering of the tribes for the final move toward the land of Israel. The Hebrew follows the custom of naming a book (and also each parashah) by its first significant word: here, “B’Midbar”, which translates to “in the wilderness”. In the wilderness happens as well to capture a major theme of this book, for this book describes the famous 40 years of “wandering in the wilderness”.
The tradition has conflicting views about the experience of our ancestors in the wilderness. On one hand, it was the place of the greatest apostasy and rebellion, and thus the place where the generation that was redeemed from slavery in Egypt had to die. It is the site of the idolatry of the Golden Calf, and then a litany of rebellions that comprise most of the book of B’Midbar. On the other hand, it is also the place where the Torah is given to the people. By placing the reading of this parashah always on the Shabbat before Shavuot, the festival that celebrates our being given the Torah, the rabbis indicate that this latter aspect of the wilderness is the one we should remember foremost.
In so doing, the rabbis follow the prophets who came hundreds of years before them. The prophets memorialized the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness as a time in which the relationship between Israel and God was most dear. The words of the prophet Jeremiah, recited in our Rosh Hashanah liturgy, state: “I remember for you the grace of your youth, the love of your betrothal days, when you went after Me in the desert, in a land unsown.” The prophet Hosea, in the words read in the haftarah this week says, “Assuredly, I will speak coaxingly to her and lead her through the wilderness, and speak to her tenderly…there she shall respond as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt.”
The rabbis query what is so special about the wilderness that it is the place where Torah is given; they understand the Torah as the ketubah, the document of marriage between God and the Jewish people. One answer they provide is that the wilderness is accessible to all, a site belonging to no one and thus everyone: The Torah binds Jews to God, but it is open for anyone to bind themselves to God through Torah if they so choose. Another is that “whoever does not make him or herself free like the wilderness, cannot acquire the Torah.” The freedom of the wilderness further reminds us that whenever freedom of thought is curtailed so too are words and principles of Torah.
As we enter the book of the book of the wilderness in preparation for Shavuot, may we be inspired to think openly and freely, and to remember, that the Torah is intended to be accessible to all. As it is written, “For all its ways are pleasant, and all its paths are peace.”