Finding Faith in the Wilderness
This week we read the Torah portion of Bamidbar, the first in the book of Numbers, which is given its English name by the census that occupies a good part of the beginning of the Torah portion. The Hebrew name for this portion, and this book, Bamidbar means “in the Wilderness”. While the name comes from the first words of the book, it has a greater resonance and meaning than simply its lexicographical location. It also speaks of place in a unique and powerful way.
Every time we Jews seek inspiration, it seems, we must head out into the desert. It was true of Abraham and Jacob; it’s certainly true of Moses; and after the Exodus it is true as well for the whole people of Israel, who wander for 40 years in the Wilderness of Sinai, the Midbar Sinai, seeking God and revelation.
Why must we head out into nothingness to find truth?
Read more: Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Weekly Torah Talk on Bamidbar 5776
Taking Sinai With Us
This week’s portion of Behar, the next to last in the Book of Leviticus, begins with the statement that “God spoke to Moses at Mt. Sinai saying”, a seemingly unambiguous phrase. These rules of holiness and personal conduct must have been commanded at Mt. Sinai.
Yet earlier in Leviticus it is clear that God has given most of these commandments not at Mt. Sinai itself, but in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, the Ohel Mo’eid, the Tent of Meeting, as the people wander in the desert, after we have left Mt. Sinai and begun our journey to the Promised Land. As Behar begins the Israelites don’t actually seem to still be at Mt. Sinai at all.
What gives? Why say these laws were given at Mt. Sinai when they clearly weren’t?
The answer lies in the use of metaphor. For in the rabbinic understanding, Mt. Sinai is not just a geographical location, not a simple matter of a specific place at all. Wherever we learn and do mitzvot, whenever we complete ethical acts, do tzedakah, observe rituals with sanctity, study Torah, or work to perfect the world, wherever and whenever we strive to make this a holier, more Jewish place, we are standing at Mt. Sinai.
As committed Jews we take Mt. Sinai with us, and bring God’s very presence into the world. It’s a powerful message indeed. We can make our own lives as holy as the revelation at Mt. Sinai simply by living Torah each and every day, through our own actions.