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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Bamidbar: To be a Desert in Bloom

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

When the annual cycle of weekly Torah-readings was designed, it was very important to the Rabbis that we begin the book of Numbers, every year, the week before the festival of Shavuot. Some years certain Torah readings are to be doubled up, and some years those same readings are separated out -- all so that the book of Numbers, every year, should begin the week before Shavuot.

Why should the book of Numbers and the festival of Shavuot be tied up in this way? To answer this question, we need to know something more about the festival of Shavuot. This festival is something of the odd one out. How so? Each festival has its own date, its own sacrifices, and a distinctive ritual. Rosh Hashana has its Shofar. Yom Kippur has its afflictions of the soul, such as the fast. Pesach has its matza. Sukkot has it booths, and its lulav and etrog.

But Shavuot is different. First of all, we’re not told its date. Instead, we were commanded to count 49 days from Pesach to Shavuot. In ancient times, the length of each month wasn’t firmly fixed. Accordingly, the festival couldn’t be given a set date in the calendar. Instead, the date of Shavuot would depend upon how long the months of Nissan and Iyar would be. Its date is not its own. Its date is tied to Pesach. Secondly: unlike the other festivals, the Torah gives Shavuot no distinctive rituals (other than its sacrifices).

The other festivals all have a story. Admittedly, the Torah doesn’t tell us that Rosh Hashana is a day of judgement, or a new year, but the shofar easily conjures the image of a people crowning their King. Yom Kippur is a day of atonement. Pesach is about the exodus from Egypt. Sukkot, we’re told, commemorates our living in booths in the wilderness.

But what about Shavuot? We’re not told. Shavuot is a festival in search of an identity.

According to the Rabbis, of course, Shavuot remembers the revelation at Mount Sinai. This teaching generated its own rituals: we learn Torah all night, so as not to be late for the revelation; we read the Ten Commandments, to re-enact it; and we decorate our shuls with flowers, to commemorate the eruption of flowers on the rocky mountain. But why is all of this hidden in the Torah itself? And why must we, so to speak, open the book of Numbers before we can celebrate this festival?

Nothing all that obvious connects the opening of the book of Numbers to the revelation at Mount Sinai. Perhaps the Rabbis were drawing a connection between the festival of Shavuot and the Hebrew name of the book of Numbers -- Bamidbar, which means “in the desert”. Perhaps the idea is this: we have to enter the desert before we can stand, on Shavuot, to receive the Torah.

Perhaps that's the idea. But why? Why do we need to, symbolically, enter the desert before we can receive the Torah?

Before I get to this week's Midrash, let me share a couple of much later responses to our question. Both of these answers suggest that the Torah had to be revealed in the desert. That would explain why the book of the desert has to be opened before the festival of the revelation.

Rabbi Hirsch

According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Torah was given in the desert to teach us a crucial lesson about our national identity. We had to learn that our peoplehood doesn’t depend upon a government, or a building, or a homeland. Our peoplehood depends solely upon the Torah. Even without the Temple, or worldly belongings, or sovereignty over our land, we would remain God’s people. Even in a desert, we have the Torah. Perhaps that's why we have to open the book of Numbers before we can celebrate Shavuot.

The Maharal of Prague makes a very different suggestion. If we care only about the laws of the Torah, he argues, we will create a society worthy of destruction. He writes: “This is commemorated by the fact that the Torah was given in a place of destruction, namely, the desert” (Hidushei Agada BM 30). The Written Torah is not enough. Law is not enough. Instead, we must embody the spirit of the law; in order to make the desert bloom.

There’s a Midrash we could cite in connection with this suggestion of the Maharal, in which a king had two servants (Seder Eliyahu Zuta, 2). “He gave each of them a small measure of wheat, and a small bunch of flax.” One of them took the flax “and weaved a cloth, and took the wheat and made some flour, which he sifted, ground finely, kneaded, and baked into bread, placed on the table, and spread the cloth over it.” The other one did nothing with his gift. But the King wanted his gift to be used. So too: “when the Holy One, Blessed be He, gave the Torah to Israel, it was given to them as wheat with which to produce flour, and as flax with which to produce a garment.”

We were not supposed to leave the Torah on the bookshelf. We were supposed to engage with it. And if we don't engage with the Torah; if we merely take it as we find it, and blindly follow its laws without delving deeply into its spirit, then we'll find that we live in a desert.

Following this line of thought, from the Maharal through to this Midrash about the flour and the flax, we finally receive an answer to our other question: our question regarding the seemingly hidden identity of Shavuot. The festival of Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah. And for that reason, it cannot have an identity, unless we, God’s partners in revelation, are involved in giving it its meaning. That sort of partnership is the essence of Torah. It is a living tradition and it calls upon us to stand up and to engage with it. Shavuot couldn’t be the festival of the Torah until we say that that’s what it was; until we take the flour and make into bread.

But now I want to share a Midrash on this week's reading which carves out a very different relationship between the desert and the revelation at Mount Sinai. The prophet Isaiah (42:11) foresaw that, in the end of days, the "desert and its cities" would lift up their voice in praise of God. The Midrash comments:

[The matter] is comparable to a prince who entered a metropolis. When the inhabitants of the metropolis saw him, they fled. He entered a second one, and [again] they fled from him. He entered into another city that was ruined; and when the inhabitants saw him, they praised him. That prince said, “This [ruined] city is better than all the metropolises. Here I will build myself a lodging place; here I will dwell.” Similarly, when the Holy One, blessed be He, came to the sea, it fled from Him, as stated (in Ps. 114:3), “The sea saw [Him] and fled.” He revealed Himself on Mount Sinai, [it also] fled, as stated (in Ps. 114:4), “The mountains danced like rams” [which is to say, Mount Sinai danced away]. When he came to the desert wasteland, it received Him and praised Him, as stated (in Is. 42:11), “Let the desert and its cities lift up [their voice].” He said, “This city is better than all of the cities. Here I will build a lodging place.” When He came down into its midst, they began rejoicing, because the Holy One, blessed be He, was dwelling in their midst, as stated (in Is. 35:1), “The desert and the arid land shall be glad, and the wilderness shall rejoice and blossom like a crocus.”

I think this Midrash gives rise to a very different connection between Shavuot and the book of Bamidbar -- the book of the desert. According to the Maharal and Rabbi Hirsch, the basic point is that the Torah was given in the desert. That's undeniably true. And yet it's also true that it was given on a Mountain top; in a national revelation of unforgettable sights and sounds. After that moment, the Jewish people wandered in the desert for forty years, and God lived in their midst, in the Tabernacle.

We all need our moments at Sinai; moments of dazzling religious intensity. But Sinai is fleeting. It "dances" off "like the rams" that skip on their merry way.

The Jewish people had one prior experience like it, at the Sea. The waters split. The entire people walked between walls of water on dry land. They sang a prophetic song. According to a famous Midrash, "a [simple] slave-girl beheld at the Red Sea what was not beheld by Ezekiel and the other prophets." It was momentous. But it didn't last long. Just like the sea, which fled from the presence of God, the religious experience of the Jews at the sea was also fleeting. It fled.

Moments of religious ecstasy, and clarity, sustain us. But it's the daily grind, as we wander in the desert, that really shows our religious mettle. It's easy to praise God from the mountain top. But it doesn't mean as much as our praising him in a spiritual wasteland. It's easy to feel inspired at the shore of the ocean, and much harder to feel God's presence calling us to serve him among the ruins of a broken world.

The parable of the Midrash is strange. Why do the citizens of the metropolis flee from the king? And why do the residents of the broken down city run to his praise? Perhaps the idea is this. They didn't flee. They praised him too. But the praise meant nothing. It's easy to praise the king when the going is good. So their praise, so to speak, fled from his memory. It didn't stick. It meant very little. But when the residents of the slum came to praise him, he was taken aback by their sincerity; so the prince settled in the slum and made it flourish.

Perhaps the idea is this: as we approach Mount Sinai, on the festival of Shavuot, we shouldn't forget that, however important these moments of spiritual inspiration may be, it is from the wasteland rather than from the mountaintop, where our service of God counts most.

Yes, God revealed his glory on the festival of Shavuot. But he dwelt in our midst for forty long years as we built a society in the wilderness. And that is the story of the book of Numbers.

Moreover, if we want God to dwell in our midst, we need to make ourselves like a desert. When God's presence appears atop the mountain, we need to make room for it in our hearts; we need to become like a desert. We must destroy our arrogance and our ego, leaving them in ruins. We must make room. And only then can we flourish. The only way to be a flourishing human is to be a desert in miraculous bloom; a desert that made room for God.

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