“As the Lord had commanded Moses, so he recorded them in the wilderness of Sinai” Numbers 1:19


As we begin a new book of the Torah, Bemidbar — which translated from Hebrew means “in the desert” — let’s ask the question, what is the overall theme of Numbers and what is the connection to the festival of Shavuot?

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin’s introduction to the book of Numbers suggests that it is a book of transition. It represents the liminal space between freedom from slavery and arriving in the Promised Land.

Every year, this parashah is read on the Shabbat preceding Shavuot. Why? Perhaps, as a reminder that the Torah was given in the wilderness of Sinai and not a specific location like Jerusalem. The Midrash suggests that the giving of the Torah in the desert sends a message that it is available for anyone who wants to makes claim to it (Mechilta 20). Had the Torah been given in a location associated with ownership or a tribe, that tribe could claim exclusive rights to it in the future.

When thinking of the desert, I usually imagine endless sand dunes, blistering sun and caravans of camels. For the medieval grammarian, Rabbi David Kimchi, midbar is related to the word “guide” or “lead” and associated with the grazing of flocks (Sefer Hashorashim). This definition is, not from a modern geographical view, related to annual rainfall; rather, the midbar is any place void of human settlements or agricultural cultivation.

In contrast to farm land for crops or urban areas, the midbar is the uncultivated. Rabbi Michael Hattin calls the midbar “the place of being led” (Passages, p 252). Similar to the liturgy of Yom Kippur which states “we are your flock and you are the shepherd.” This provides an understanding that the Sinai wilderness was a place that God led the Israelites to grow, develop, learn and transition from newly liberated slaves to being ready to enter the Land.

A different understanding of the word midbar relates to the Hebrew word medaber, “speak”. To lead the Israelites through the Sinai wilderness, Moses both led and spoke to the people. The Torah is replete with the verse, “God spoke to Moses saying…”

Over the past year, we have lived with great uncertainty, and some may have felt in a spiritual wilderness. Now in the lead up to Shavuot, we can spiritually prepare to renew our Jewish commitments in receiving the Torah again similar to the experience at Mount Sinai.

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