No Ownership

Every year we read the Torah portion Bemidbar (“In the desert”) during the week of Shavuoth, the festival of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The association is immediate: the Torah was given in the desert.

We may ask why G-d chose the desolate desert as the place to give the Torah. Why did He not wait and give the Torah in the land of Israel?

When G-d gives something unique and so sublime, something not presented since the days of the creation, we would expect a more impressive “setting”. But the desert? What did G-d see there?

Our Sages answer this question in the Yalkut Shimoni:

Why was the Torah given in the desert?

So that there would be no controversy among the tribes, with one claiming “The Torah was given in my land” and another claiming “The Torah was given in mine.”

Thus the Torah was given in the desert in public in no man’s land. (Yalkut Shimoni, Parashat Yitro) 

King David had a similar consideration when he chose Jerusalem as the capital of his kingdom. He chose a neutral city that was not located on land belonging to any of the tribes so that no tribe would claim that Jerusalem was on his portion.

The midrash goes further and says that was the reason for the murder of Abel. It asks what Cain and Abel were arguing about moments before the murder and answers “Each one said the Temple would be built on his land.”  (Yalkut Shimoni, Parashat Bereshit)

When the sages say “The Torah has seventy facets” they are not concerned with geometrical definition. They wish to state that no one should ever say “The Torah is mine.” God forbid that anyone should turn the Torah and its interpretation into his personal possession.

I usually explain this idea through the famous fable of the elephant and the blind. This old story tells of six blind people from India who, despite their disability, decided to travel around the world and try to learn about it.

One day when they had the opportunity, they decided to “see” the large creature called an elephant. When they reached the elephant, each one had a different vantage point.

The first blind man stood to the side of the elephant, felt its rough and thick skin, and determined without hesitation: “This elephant is like a wall.”

When the second blind man approached, he felt the sharp tusk of the elephant. “Round…. Smooth and sharp.” The blind man examined it again and said confidently: “The elephant is a creature similar to a sharp spear.”

When the third blind man approached the animal, he found the elephant’s trunk After feeling it for some time, he declared “The elephant is a kind of pipe.”

The fourth blind man felt the elephant’s leg from all sides and said: “The elephant is a kind of tree.”

When the fifth blind man touched the elephant, he felt its large ear and stated confidently: “The elephant is like a fan.”

The sixth blind man walked around the elephant and found its tail. When he had held  it and felt it, he declared: “The elephant is like a rope.”

Who was right? Who told the truth? No one, and yet – all of them together.

The Torah is “Truth” because the seal of the Almighty is “truth” (Emet), but the same truth is not to be found in the words of a commentator, rabbi or any posek Halachah, but rather in the sum of opinions of the sages of Israel in all generations. 

It is not by chance that the midrash compares the Torah to the desert, to fire and to water. Just as those have no owners, so does the Torah have no owners. Also, the truth has no owners.