Mordechai Silverstein

Torah for all comers

Parshat Bemidbar always falls on the Shabbat preceding Hag Hashavuot — the celebration of the revelation of the Torah to the Children of Israel. It should not be surprising then, that the sages might find some linkage between the two. Still, this might seem like a mission impossible since the core material of the parashah deals with census matters.

The book opens with the words: “And the Lord spoke to Moshe in the Wilderness of Sinai (Bemidbar Sinai) in the Tent of Meeting”. (Numbers 1:1) The words “Bemidbar Sinai” provide the Hebrew name for the book. On the other hand, these same words could be thought of as superfluous given the fact that the verse also tells us that the message was given in the Tent of Meeting. Students of rabbinic midrash will note that this very characteristic lends itself to creative interpretation. And so, this opening verse provides an opportunity for a message fit for the season: “Why [was the Torah given] in the Wilderness of Sinai?” asks Midrash Tanhuma. “From here the Sages teach: ‘With three things the Torah was given: with fire and with water and in the wilderness. With fire, as it says: ‘And Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the Lord had come down on it in fire.’ (Exodus 19:18); with water, as it says: ‘O Lord, when You came forth from Seir, when You strode from the fields of Edom, the earth heaved, the very heavens dripped rain, the clouds, they dripped water.’ (Judges 5:4); in the wilderness – ‘in the Wilderness of Sinai’ And why was it given through these three means? To tell you, just as these things were free, open to all (l’khol baei olam), so, too, the Torah is free, open to all, as it says: ‘Oh, every one who thirsts go to the water’ (Isaiah 55:1)” (Tanhuma Bemidbar 7)

This midrash from the Tanhuma, a 7th-8th century midrash from Eretz Yisrael, is based on a much earlier source from the period of the Mishnah, which speaks of the Torah as a revelation open to all of God’s creatures and not just Jews. Just as water, fire and the desert are available to all comers, so, too, the Torah. This view originated in the school of Rabbi Yishmael, while, in contrast, the school of Rabbi Akiva’s view seems to have been more particularistic and exclusive. (See M. Hirshman, Torah L’khol Baei Olam, pp. 40-41)

The Tanhuma has taken up the more universal position, that God’s revelation was supposed to be transformative on a universal level and that its message was important for all. This Shavuot, as we stand before Har (Mount) Sinai on the day we celebrate the receiving of the Torah, we should ponder what it might be like to share our enthusiasm for our precious tradition with others, Jews and non-Jews alike.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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