This week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, always precedes our observance of the festival of Shavuot, the time of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This year we begin our celebration of Shavuot on Thursday evening and continue our observance through to the Holy Sabbath, creating a seamless transition between our Feast of Weeks and Shabbat.
What connection is there between the desert and the Torah? According to our sages, there are several possible associations.
The Midrash (Numbers Rabbah 1:7) teaches us that the desert was the ideal venue for Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah): “The Rabbis taught: The Torah was given within the context of three things — fire, rain and desert … From where do we know that the desert played a role? As it says (Numbers 1:1): ‘And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert.’” This is the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion, the first in the Book of Numbers.
The Midrash also asks, “Why (was the Torah given) in the desert? Anyone who does not make himself ownerless like the desert, cannot acquire the Torah.”
While we in Phoenix live in a developed desert, with sprawling suburbs, massive office buildings and a plethora of recreational facilities, if we travel even a few miles out of the metro Phoenix area, we can grasp how rugged and unforgiving a desert can be. The heat can be blistering, and if we are not careful, the absence of water can lead to death.
Sometimes, it is the most desolate places that can make us the most spiritually receptive. When we are not distracted by tall buildings, planned communities and the variety of diversions available in large cities, the desert is a most austere setting, and just as we thirst for water in the desert, it is also natural for us to thirst for spiritual nourishment there as well.
This reminds us that in addition to being in a venue that lends itself to spirituality, we must make ourselves receptive to God’s teachings. The Torah is, after all, the greatest gift that God has ever given to us.
Perhaps it is worth noting that liturgically we call Shavuot “Zman Matan Toraseinu,” the time of the giving of the Torah. But why do we call it the time of the “giving” of the Torah and not the time of “receiving” the Torah? That is because while God only gave the Torah once, it is up to each generation to receive it with an open heart. That is our charge and our obligation as we celebrate Shavuot.
While most synagogues remain closed for in-person prayer and study due to the novel coronavirus, thankfully in today’s world there is so much available to us via the internet. One can study with rabbis and teachers around the block or around the world. The possibilities are endless.
Anyone can easily find a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (Shavuot study session) preceding the festival for those who do not use electricity on Sabbath or festivals, or there are countless online study opportunities on Thursday evening — both live and recorded. Let “Rabbi Google” be your guide and discover how Torah can be transmitted effectively, even online.
Let us accept the Torah anew and live our lives according to God’s teachings. We who live in the desert should be especially receptive to the word of God. God gave the Torah to His people Israel thousands of years ago. Now it is up to us to receive it, and to do so with joy. JN
Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky is a retired Navy chaplain, freelance rabbi and former president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.