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Torah in the Desert

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. He said: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families, listing every man by name, one by one.” — Numbers 1:1–2

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.

According to Jewish tradition, when God wanted to give the Torah, the Bible, to humankind, he offered it to every nation in the world before the children of Israel. Each nation asked God the same question: “What’s in it?” God shared with them the Ten Commandments – don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, and so forth. “No thanks!” they replied. “It’s just too hard!”

When God offered the Torah to the Israelites, they didn’t ask any questions. They simply replied “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey” (Exodus 24:7). The rest is history.

This week, we not only read a new Torah portion, but we also begin the fourth of the Five Books of Moses, the book of Numbers. The portion begins with a commandment from God to count the Israelites, which is how the book gets its English name – Numbers. However, the Hebrew name for this book, and also this portion, is Bamidbar, meaning “desert,” from the opening verse: “The LORD spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting in the Desert of Sinai . . .”

The Jewish sages ask why this title was chosen. The fact that the children of Israel are in the desert is not news. They have been there since the second half of Exodus. Why is this title chosen to stress that the Israelites were in the desert?

The reason for this emphasis is because this portion is always read just before Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks. On Shavuot, we celebrate receiving the Torah which occurred on the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, the day of Shavuot. As we re-accept the Torah and renew our commitment to God’s Word, the rabbis wanted us to remember that the Torah was originally given in a desert. Why?

Here is just one of several reasons: The desert is one of the hardest places to live in. In fact, Jeremiah calls it a place “Where no one lives” (Jeremiah 2: 6). The hot days are harsh, and the cold nights even harder. There is little or no food and water. But it is precisely in these difficult conditions that God gave His Word. God wants us to know that His Word is relevant anytime, anywhere. There is no time or place or situation where God’s Word is too hard to keep or does not apply. 

Sometimes our life may feel like an arid desert. Things are tough and nothing comes easy. But it is specifically in those times that we must cling to God’s Word with faith and obedience. We must serve God in all places and at all times. If the Israelites in the desert were able to faithfully accept God’s Law, then surely we can do the same.

With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President

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