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    The Desert
    This week’s Torah
    portion, named
    “Bamidbar,” which
    means “in the desert,”
    is always read
    preceding the holiday of
    Shavuos, when we celebrate the giving of
    the Torah at Sinai, more than 3,300 years
    ago, in the year 1313 BCE.
    One reason for this is because the Torah
    was given “bamidbar,” in a desert. It was at
    Mt. Sinai in the Sinai desert where the
    Hebrews were molded into a nation and
    given the blueprint for repairing the world.
    But that only carries the question over: Of all
    places, why indeed was Torah given in a
    wilderness? What is more, our sages describe
    Sinai as the marriage between G-d and
    His people; whoever heard of getting
    married in a barren desert? The Torah should

    have been given in the Hilton or the Waldorf-
    Astoria, not in a desolate desert?

    Let us introduce one more question: Why
    was it necessary for the Jewish people to
    wander 40 years in this desert before entering
    the Promised Land? Was 210 years in Egypt,

    including more than 80 years of hard labor,
    not enough? Why liberate them from Egypt
    only to put them through another 40 years in
    the wilderness?
    There are many explanations for the unique
    relationship between Torah and the desert.
    Here are three.
    Absolute Sublimity
    1) Had the Torah been given in a civilized
    city or community, people might have
    defined it as a product of a particular culture,
    milieu and environment. Sophisticated
    academics would explain to us the particular
    “genre” of Torah, as if it were an outdated,
    modern or post-modern piece of literature,
    an epic or lyric, a work of history, law,
    tragedy or philosophy. They would enlighten
    us as to whether Torah belonged to the time
    of the Athenians, the Hellenistic age, the
    Greco-Roman period, the Byzantine age or
    another period of civilization. Torah would
    be labeled, classified and qualified. It would
    be “put into perspective.”
    But Torah cannot be put into a particular
    cultural or artistic perspective. Torah is not
    culture, literature, art, history, law or fiction.

    Torah embodies the eternal
    truths about existence, life
    and destiny that speak in
    every language, in every
    culture, in every age, to
    every soul. The Torah
    cannot be reduced to a
    particular time frame or
    reference point. It benefits
    all the arts but never
    competes with them.
    Professor Abraham Joshua
    Heschel put it thus:
    “Why does the Bible surpass everything
    created by man? Why is there no work
    worthy of comparison with it? Why is there
    no substitute for the Bible, no parallel to the
    history it has engendered? Why must all who
    seek the living G-d turn to its pages?
    “Set the Bible beside any of the truly great
    books produced by the genius of man and
    see how they are diminished in stature. The
    Bible shows no concern with literary form,
    with verbal beauty, yet its absolute sublimity
    rings through all its pages. Its lines are so
    monumental and at the same time so simple
    that whoever tries to compete with them
    produces either a commentary or a
    caricature. It is a work we do not know
    how to assess. Other books you can
    estimate, you can measure, compare; the
    Bible you can only extol. Its insights
    surpass our standards. There is nothing
    greater. In three thousand years it has not
    aged a day. It is a book that cannot die.
    Oblivion shuns its pages.”
    “Absolute sublimity.” Such a work
    must be taught and transmitted in a
    desert. A desert is not associated with
    any particular culture or form of living. A
    desert is barren, raw, plain. A desert is
    not sophisticated; it is real.
    2) Had the Torah been given in a
    particular city or community, its
    inhabitants would have claimed
    copyrights on it. Had the Torah been
    given in BoroPark, CrownHeights,
    Williamsburg or Monsey, these
    communities would claim “ownership”
    on Torah. “We know how to interpret
    Torah, how to assess it, how to appreciate
    it. It belongs to us.” The same would
    hold true if the Torah was given
    in Lakewood or the Upper West Side.
    The desert, on the other hand, is
    ownerless. Nobody wants the desert
    (besides the Arabs, once the Jews settle
    it). It belongs to nobody. Torah, too, is
    ownerless. It belongs to every Jewish
    soul on earth. Nobody holds any “rights”

    to the Torah. It is the living, vibrant
    conversation of G-d with every living Jew.
    Life in the Fast Lane
    3) Had the Torah been given in a civilized
    and splendid terrain, we might have believed
    that its objective was to guide the beautiful
    life and the splendid heart.
    But that is not Torah.
    Torah does not tell us that life is easy and
    that faith is bliss. On the contrary, we were
    placed in a personal and global wilderness,
    and life is a battle. And it is precisely this
    battle that G-d intended us to face, day in
    andw day out. Do not be disturbed or
    demoralized, the Torah teaches, by your
    challenges, your demons, your
    inconsistencies and your weaknesses. Do not
    be shaken when you do not live up to your
    highest aspirations, and often do not actualize
    or maintain your inspiration. Do not be
    discouraged; because the Torah was given
    precisely to help us pave a road in the barren
    desert of the human psyche, to create a
    highway in the jungle of history.
    Had the Torah been given in a beautiful
    city, then all we would have is a guide on
    how to live in beauty, in ecstasy. But Torah
    came to teach us how to confront our
    wilderness and to transform a desert into
    That is how the spiritual masters explained
    the reason for the Torah being given on a
    mountain. Why a mountain, and not flat
    A mountain is essentially elevated earth.
    That is the profound message of Torah: With
    earth, gravel, dirt and mud, you must battle.
    That is intrinsic to the human condition and
    the reality of our world. Yet you must
    remember that your mission is to elevate the
    earth, to introduce holiness and G-dliness
    into a mundane and soiled world.
    G-d did not desire holy people doing holy
    things; he wanted unholy people doing holy
    things. He desired that earthly human beings
    become mountains of moral dignity and
    divine grace.