Shavuot’s Wilderness Torah

This week we begin reading the Book of Numbers, in Hebrew bamidbar — in the wilderness.  It is here, in this wilderness, on an ordinary and nondescript mountain, called Mount Sinai, that the Torah was given.

The ancient rabbis wonder:

Why was the Torah not given in the land of Israel?  In order that the nations of the world shall not say: “Because it was given in Israel’s land, we do not accept it.”  And lest others say: “In my territory, the Torah was given.”  Therefore, the Torah was given in the desert wilderness, publicly and openly, in a place belonging to no one. (Mekhilta)

In the rabbinic imagination, Torah has universal import.  Its values belong to everyone.  Its import is for the world at large.  The news (I think of those murdered in Tel Aviv) produces daily reminders of the importance of the values it teaches, namely that all human beings are created in God’s image.  Moreover because the Torah was given in the wilderness no one people can claim it as its own treasured possession.  No one can say, “It is only mine.”  It belongs to all.

And yet the State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence declares:

The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.

This document appears to suggest that the Torah was given not in Sinai but in the land of Israel.  For Zionists sovereignty is primary, for the rabbis it was by necessity, secondary.  The rabbis imagined a Torah that can be carried from one place to another, that was independent of place.  Location was immaterial.  The midbar confirms their premise.  Why else would Mount Sinai be found in a wilderness?  Zionists, by contrast, believed that centuries of homelessness caused irreparable harm to the Jewish people and their psyche.

We must wander no more.  We must return to the land.  It is there, in the land of Israel, where we can realize our true potential because it was there that we once realized our greatest achievements.  It was there that gave the world the Bible and its values.

The two visions appear in conflict.  Do we emphasize the Promised Land or the wilderness landscape?  Do we insist that Torah is independent of place and therefore of universal significance or that revelation hinges on a sacred geography and then by implication only meaningful to those of us residing there?

Then again why must it be either/or?  Perhaps it should be both — simultaneously.  Perhaps, today, we require both visions.

For the Torah to become Torah we must study it, debate it and re-imagine it.  Today we are blessed with a unique historical circumstance.  We have both Jewish sovereignty and a vibrant Jewish Diaspora.  Our generation must therefore re-imagine Torah and its import.

Otherwise the Torah remains a beautiful scroll that sits in a beautiful Ark but that does not offer any meaning or any insight for today and offers little insights to the world at large.  Otherwise, the Torah becomes mere parchment and ink and fails to become the living document for which it was intended.  Otherwise the true import of this Sunday’s holiday of Shavuot is missed upon us.

In each generation we read Torah.  In each generation we must re-imagine Torah.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L'Dor V'Dor, a community serving Long Island's North Shore. He began his rabbinical career in 1991 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. He travels every summer to Jerusalem to learn at the Shalom Hartman Institute where he is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow. Rabbi Moskowitz is married to Rabbi Susie Moskowitz and is the father of Shira and Ari.
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