This Shabbat we begin reading the book of Numbers — in Hebrew, Bamidbar. That’s the name given both to the book of Numbers, and to this week’s Torah portion, which begins:
וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר יְהֹוָ֧”ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י בְּאֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד
And God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting… (Numbers 1:1)
The wilderness of Sinai.
Bamidbar means in the wilderness. Midbar, wilderness, is related to m’daber, when someone speaks. The wilderness is where we hear the voice of God. And the quintessential example of that is Sinai, where we received the revelation of Torah long ago in a time beyond time; when we continue to receive Torah even now, in our day. You might have noticed that I just scrambled place and time. Hold that thought.
So we’re in the wilderness of Sinai. Torah also locates this in the Ohel Mo’ed. When the word mo’ed appears with ohel, tent, it’s usually translated as Meeting. This is the Tent of Meeting, the place where community comes together. But on its own, mo’ed means season, appointed place or time. As in the מוֹעֲדֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֔”ה / mo’adei YHVH / God’s “fixed times,” that we just read about in Torah. (Lev. 23:2)
Shabbat is first among those fixed or appointed times. Every seventh day we rest, as God rested; we live as-if the world were already redeemed; we taste eternity. And then Torah lists the other Biblical moadim, the oldest among our festivals. Pesach, and Shavuot, and Sukkot, and the Days of Awe. These are our earliest moadim, the most ancient appointed times of connection with our Source.
“And God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai,” — the place of revelation; “in the ohel mo’ed,” — both the tent of community meeting, and a sacred fixed point in time. That’s where this verse places us: in the wilderness, in the middle of nowhere — which is where God speaks (or maybe where we hear), where we’re receptive as satellite dishes, at the nexus of holy space and holy time.
I kind of imagine our souls at Sinai as a human version of the Very Large Array.
In the Midrash we read:
Why [was Torah given] in the wilderness of Sinai? Our sages taught: Torah was given with the accompaniment of three things: fire, water, and wilderness… Why was the giving of Torah marked by these three? To show that as these are free to all, so too the words of Torah are free. Anyone who does not make oneself as open (hefker / ownerless) as the wilderness is not able to acquire wisdom and Torah.
(Midrash Numbers Rabbah 1:7)
In order to receive Torah, we too need to become hefker, ownerless. Torah was given at Sinai because in antiquity “the wilderness” had no owner. Because it was hefker, it belonged equally to everyone. Hefker is a legal term, often used in the context of “land that is declared ownerless by a beit din.” But I’m most interested in what it means for us spiritually, what it teaches us about how to prepare for revelation.
Becoming hefker means not letting ourselves be “owned” by our achievements. Maybe we become so attached to a job or a role that it begins to “own” our sense of self. Or our sense of self gets tied up in whether or not we get a certain job,… and then what happens at retirement? When we define ourselves through what we accomplish and how others see us, that can get in the way of receiving Torah.
Hefker means not letting ourselves be “owned” by our attachments. It’s so easy to get attached in our relationship to possessions. What kind of car we drive, or maybe we’ve chosen not to drive at all. Where we get our clothing, whether “I wear name brands” or “I only buy secondhand.” When we define ourselves through our stuff or lack thereof, that can get in the way of receiving Torah, too.
Honestly, if we define ourselves wholly through our emotional “stuff,” our baggage or our traumas or the harms we’ve endured, I think that can get in the way of receiving Torah too. Let me be clear: I’m not saying that having experienced trauma blocks the flow of revelation! I’m saying that when we get too attached to any piece of our identity, we block ourselves from being open to something new.
And no aspect of our identity makes us “worthy” of receiving Torah. The worth of a human soul is both infinite and innate. We merit the receiving of Torah because that’s our covenant. God gives us Torah, and we aspire to live a life of meaning through the mitzvot, the commandments, contained therein. We merit the receiving of Torah every time we say yes to that covenant, to living our Jewish values.
On some level, Torah is ours even if we’re full of ourselves. But as we ready ourselves for Shavuot, for standing again at Sinai, for receiving Torah anew, I’m moved by that midrash from Numbers Rabbah about becoming hefker. In some way, becoming hefker feels like a call to become more simply ourselves, unencumbered by roles or expectations. It reminds me of the Zen parable of Nan-in and the teacup.
There was a Japanese Zen master named Nan-in who lived during the Meiji era (1868-1912). During his days as a teacher, he was visited by a university professor curious about Zen.
Being polite, Nan-in served the professor a cup of tea.
As he poured, the professor’s cup became full, but Nan-in kept on pouring. As the professor watched the cup overflow, he could no longer contain himself and said, “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
Nan-in turned to the professor and said, “Like the cup, you are too full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
Like that professor, we need to empty our preconceptions, our over-attachments, before we can receive Torah anew. This is big spiritual work. That’s why our tradition gives us the seven weeks of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot! And this is not just for priests (who don’t exist anymore), or rabbis, or sages, or Hebrew-speakers, or people in power. The Midrash reminds us of that, too.
“Rabbi Yochanan said: When God’s voice came forth at Mt. Sinai, it divided itself into 70 human languages, so that the whole world might understand it. All at Mt. Sinai, young and old, women, children, and infants according to their ability to understand. Moses too, understood only according to his capacity, as it is said (Ex. 19:19), ‘Moses spoke and God answered him with a voice.’ With a voice that Moses could hear.”
(Midrash Exodus Rabbah)
Torah flowed in a way that all the world could understand. And God’s “voice” — which of course isn’t a literal voice — is pitched in a way that can reach us where we are. Torah reaches every person in accordance with our capability to hear. Torah’s like the manna that fell in the wilderness. Midrash teaches that each person tasted something different, depending on what they needed:
The infants in accordance with their faculties; just as this infant would suckle at his mother’s breasts, so he would taste it; as it is stated: “And its taste was like that of a cake (leshad) baked with oil.” [This is a pun on shadayim, breasts.]
And the youths in accordance with their faculties, as it is stated: “My bread also which I gave you, fine flour, and oil, and honey, wherewith I fed you” (Yechezkel 16:18).
And the adults in accordance with their faculties, as it is stated: “And the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” Just as the manna, each person tasted it in accordance with his faculties, so the commandment, each person heard it in accordance with his faculties.
(Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 12, 25)
Everyone found in the manna what they most needed. Torah is the same way: one text, from which we take away different wisdom depending on who we are, and when and where we are. We find different things in Torah depending on what we need. So… what’s the Torah that you most need this year? What’s the wisdom, the new interpretation, the deep justice and love that you most need this year?
Image by Steve Silbert.
The divine broadcast continues to sound, and we receive it when and where we are attuned. And one of our tradition’s times to “tune in” is in just a few days, when we gather at the foot of the mountain to hear God’s voice anew. So get ready to tune the dial on your inner spiritual radio. Or maybe I should say subscribe to God’s podcast (or God’s TikTok?) because new episodes are dropping all the time.
We’re all invited to let go of attachment to stuff or status, role or expectation, because all of those can block our capacity to hear the divine broadcast. We get to drop everything extraneous, and each of us gets to be our purest, most essential self. You’ll know best how to embody that change on Thursday afternoon. Some people immerse in a mikvah, some use meditation, some use song.
And then without preconceptions we open our hands and our hearts. We come to the table with an empty teacup, ready to be filled. We open to Torah, to wisdom, to the spiritual sustenance we need.
See y’all at Sinai, real soon.
This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel gave at Kabbalat Shabbat services (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi).