Matan Torah in the Australian Outback: A Modern Midrash

Uluru, Northern Territory, Australia

“And they stood at the bottom of the mountain.” (Exodus 19:17)

“This teaches that the Blessed Holy One held the mountain over them like a tub.” (Shabbat 88a)

I imagine the Torah being given in the Australian outback, at the foot of the magnificent, otherworldly monolith of Uluru.

When God saw that the Israelites – like the Ammonites and Edomites before them – were too preoccupied to accept the Torah, God knew that a change of scenery was due. God cast the children of Israel onto the wings of eagles and into the pouches of fantastical bouncing beasts, and – in a swift kefitzat haderech – whisked them to a faraway land.

The children of Israel were awed by the outback’s Martian landscape. They were surrounded by a sea of red sand extending miles and miles as far as the eye could see. The desert shrubs were different from anything they had encountered before, not even the Elders of the Edah could name them. Yet-to-be-classified snakes and other treif reptilian creatures crawled around.

But the children of Israel were also very hot, and suffered greatly. The desert sun beat upon them, and the shadow cast by the eagles’ wings was a meager protection against the intemperate climate. So they prayed for the God who extracted them from Egypt to deliver them once again, and God heard their cry. God cast an enormous, tub-like red rock, and summoned it to protect the children of Israel from all heat and pests, like the clouds of glory. And so the rock hovered in midair that whole day, and the children of Israel rested down under its shade.

Night fell, and the oppressive heat was relieved by a cool desert breeze. The red rock settled gently into the sand, and a majestic curtain of stars was drawn upon the unpolluted sky behind it. An erev rav of seers and astrologists gazed up, seeking guidance as to what would transpire; the amateur astronomers among the Hebrews pulled out their telescopes, and set into an unspoken competition to find the northern star. But the astrologists were baffled, and the astronomers searched to no avail. It was then that the Elders understood that this was where the Torah would be given.

The Elders called upon the entire community to congregate around the mountain, and they did. Men, women and children; travel bloggers and water carriers; by foot and on camels. An endless caravan of backpackers, campervans and trailers. Just before the ceremony began, a host of bike-mounted angels appeared from the distance and split the crowd into two camps. Exhausts popped and crackled, dust clouds rose, didgeridoos thrummed, a lightning flashed across the desert plains.

And then, silence. God spoke. The people listened and accepted, and Moses climbed Uluru to collect the stone tablets.

That night, the Israelites celebrated Shavuot for the first time. It was winter in the Southern Hemisphere. The night was long and time was plentiful, the Torah could be digested at leisure – quite different from the brief three-shiurim-and-a-cheesecake ordeal of the modern-day Hebrews dwelling in the north.

The Israelites had not yet received the Torah scroll, so for tikun leil they excavated the few commandments they heard at the mountain. First they rehearsed God’s words, from start to finish, time and time again. Then they divided the source material into several textual layers, deeper and deeper, like the wall of an ancient canyon: 10 commandments, 13 verses, that many words, this many letters; peshat, drash, remez, and sod. From each layer they extracted new law and wisdom.

But the layer of letters – the otiyot – remained sealed, unwilling to reveal its mysteries. The Israelites were baffled. It was late and, deprived by antiquity of caffeine’s stimulating marvels, they became flustered and cranky. Did we travel so far, they bemoaned, did we stay up so late, just to be barred from the greatest of secrets?

Not far from the field beit midrash of the Israelites, members of the Aṉangu, the indiginous people of the land, were also examining their new treasure, the red monolith that descended from the heavens. As they proceeded, dreamtime legends spawned from every dent and crevice in the stone’s façade. Each nook and cranny weaved Uluru into the mythology of the Aṉangu land and people.

The entrepreneurial among the Israelites observed. Soon the children of Israel began doing the same with the topography of their Torah: its letters and crowns, the setuma and petucha paragraph breaks. Why does our Torah begin with the letter bet? they asked (for though they had not yet seen the scroll, they knew that the Torah begins with bet). Maybe… maybe the bet’s peculiar shape, a rectangular frame with a single opening, teaches us to look ahead rather than dwell on the past? Why do the commandments begin with an aleph? Perhaps… And so they continued all through the night.

Dawn came, and the learning of the Torah made way for groggy morning prayers. Then the sun rose and with it the desert heat. The children of Israel pleaded with the rock, but Uluru refused to levitate and offer them shade. The Elders of the Edah then knew that the giving of the Torah had come to its conclusion, and told the children of Israel to bid the outback farewell.

Some Israelites did not want to leave. They dreaded bringing the Torah back to their encampments, where their pots and pans and dirty laundry awaited. But they dared not make a formal request, for they did not have the chuzpa of Gad and Reuben and, in any event, Moses was nowhere to be found.

The children of Israel bade Uluru and the Aṉangu farewell, and boarded the megafauna once again. They flew back to the wilderness of Sinai, each to their tent, and prepared to complete their journey to the land of their fathers.

About the Author
Ben Zion Ferziger is an Israeli attorney living and working in NYC, and a member of Shazur/Interwoven (https://shazur.org/), a nonprofit dedicated to fostering appreciation and collaboration between the Israeli and American Jewish communities. Ben Zion taught in Sydney, Australia for a year in 2011-2012.
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