Usually, new books like to start with a hook, something to draw the reader in to the story. The book of Bamidbar makes no such attempt, flooding us with a long list of statistics to begin the tales of our journey from Sinai to the shores of the promised land. A page turner it’s not. Why? Why doesn’t the Torah try to make more of an attempt to sell itself, to tempt the reader inside? Doesn’t it want to be meaningful for people’s lives?
The answer lies in the desert. The Torah was given in the desert, the Torah was given as a desert, sometimes seeming barren of meaning. This barrenness can be its great strength, allowing the space for anyone and everyone to come and find themselves within it. As the Midrash puts it, as the desert is free and open to all, so too is the Torah free for all to partake from.
But to do that, the Midrash continues, you need to make yourself ‘hefker’- you need to realize that to see the Torah as something that’s trying to sell itself would mean that the choice would be ours to evaluate- is it worth it to buy it, or not? That kind of calculus can only cheapen the Torah. The reason to partake in Torah can’t be based on that kind of evaluation- in the end it will never last. It needs to be a leap of love. That’s what the desert demands. “Thus says the Lord, I have remembered for you the lovingkindness of your youth, the love of our newlywed days, when you walked after me in the desert…” (Yirmiyahu 2:2).
And when you enter the desert with love, you start to do what the children of Israel start doing in chapter 1. You start to make order, to create meaning out of the barrenness, and that’s when you begin to understand that there’s richness there that you never imagined. That’s the opportunity the desert affords, and that’s the invitation that participating in the 929 project extends. My own experience in blogging the last 99 chapters of Torah has confirmed Yirmiyahu’s later words- “there is a reward for your work, says God.” In the end, you’ll get your just desserts.
The 929 project started the book of Bamidbar this week- it’s a great time to give it a whirl. Follow this blog for english reflections on the daily chapter, and visit the project’s website 929.org.il for videos, songs, and endless fascinating thoughts about each chapter.