The LORD spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting in the Desert of Sinai on the first day of the second month of the second year after the Israelites came out of Egypt. — Numbers 1:1
The Torah portion for this week is Bamidbar, which means “in the desert,” from Numbers 1:1–4:20, and the Haftorah is from Hosea 2:1–22.
This week we begin the book of Numbers, which in Hebrew is Bamidbar, meaning “desert.” This is both because the first verse states, “The LORD spoke to Moses . . . in the Desert of Sinai” and because the desert is a repeating theme throughout the book.
However, the Jewish sages question why we need to mention the desert at all. It should be obvious from the preceding Torah portions that the Israelites were in the desert — and that they had been there since the earlier part of the book of Exodus! Why do we need this reminder now?
The sages explain that the verse teaches us that when one is studying God’s Word, just as Moses was learning the Word of God, he or she must make themselves “like a desert.”
What does this mean?
The desert is uninhabited. No one can lay claim to it or take ownership of it. It is open and accepting of all who enter. So, too, a person who is fortunate enough to acquire Torah knowledge should consider it the property of everyone. The Word of God belongs to no one, and no single person can claim it as his own. Accordingly, he or she must share it freely, willingly, and with an open heart.
Sometimes, people can become very possessive of their talents, gifts, and even their knowledge. They feel proud of their accomplishments and a sense of ownership over their achievements. However, the lesson for us from this verse is when it comes to God’s Word – both learning it and living it – we must be like the desert — open and free to share all we have.
We must teach all who want to learn and share our blessings and talents with anyone in need. The sages conclude: “Anyone who regards himself like a desert in which everyone has access to, he will rise to greatness.” Appropriately, Mt. Sinai, a barren mountain in the desert, became full of greenery and flowers when it became the place where God’s Word would be given to the world.
I am reminded of the story in the book of Ruth, which we will read just days from now when we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot that commemorates the giving of the Torah. According to Jewish tradition, in the beginning of Ruth, Elimelek, concerned that he would have to share his wealth with the famine-stricken land of Bethlehem, left the Holy Land for Moab. As a result, he lost all his wealth, the lives of his two sons, and his own as well.
I want to encourage us all to be as giving as we possibly can. It may be counter-intuitive, but the more we hold on to our possessions and wealth, the more we will lose. But when we share freely, we will receive freely and in abundance.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President