We celebrate Shavuot on Saturday evening and Sunday this week. In the spirit of this holiday celebrating the giving of Torah, I offer from the literature of our people, ancient and modern, gleanings that consider the meaning of the wilderness as the site of the revelation of God and Torah.

And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, from the tent of Meeting…” Numbers 1:1

“God transferred the Divine presence from Sinai to the Tabernacle, from the Sanctuary (Mishkan) of Adonai which God’s hands had established to the sanctuary which Israel had made. Adonai would henceforth speak to Moses from the tent of Meeting and indicate to Israel by means of the cloud when to journey and when to encamp. The Tabernacle was a mobile Sinai in the midst of them, the heavens and heavens of heavens (the holy place and the most holy place) transplanted and brought down to earth.” Rabbi Benno Jacob (1862-1945) – Reform Rabbi and Biblical Scholar, Germany

“One should be as open as a wilderness to receive the Torah.” Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 55a

“Torah was given in the wilderness because cities are filled with corruption, luxury, idolatry, and other evils…to be pure and ready to receive the Torah, one must be separated from all the vices of the city.” Philo, On the Decalogue I

“There is a wilderness within each person, a desert where selfish desires rule, where one looks out only for one’s own needs. No person is ever satisfied in the desert. There is constant complaining about lack of food and water, the scorching hot days and bitter cold nights. Anger, frustration, disagreements, and hunger prevail. The Torah is given in the desert to conquer and curb the demonic wilderness within human beings. If human beings do not conquer the desert, it may eventually conquer them. There is no peaceful coexistence between the two…” Rabbi Pinchas Peli – Jerusalem Post, June 1, 1985, p. 17

“To a people whose entire living generation had seen only the level lands of Egypt, the Israelites march into this region of mountain magnificence, with its sharp and splintered peaks and profound valleys, must have been a perpetual source of astonishment and awe. No nobler school could have been conceived for training a nation of slaves into a nation of freemen[women] or weaning a people from the grossness of idolatry to a sense of the grandeur and power of the God alike of Nature and Mind.” Nachman Ran, the Holy Land, p. V-27

“Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav…contrasts the sanctuary offered by wilderness to society’s corruption…in his depiction, in the story the Master of Prayer, societies have sunk one step below evil – into insanity. The story describes a series of countries, each organized around its own made obsession. In one, money is worshiped so totally that it has become the key to human identity: ‘Whoever had more money was a human being, and those who were very wealthy were considered gods.’ The master of prayer subversively penetrates these societies and draws people ‘out of the settled places,’ into the wilderness and a life of prayer and meditation…Prayer is the antidote to society’s obsessions because it alone has the power to lift consciousness out of the web of socially conditioned desires into a new matrix whose center is God.”  Rabbi Micha Odenheimer, The People and the Book – “To the Wilderness” – The Jerusalem Report, May 19, 1994, p. 35

“The wilderness is more than a physical location. B’midbar depicts a social wilderness, a human wasteland. This is the place where everything falls apart. It portrays a people wandering, without a shared vision, shared values, or shared words – leaders attempt to lead, but no one listens. The people of this wilderness, driven by fear and jealousy, moved only by hunger, thirst and lust, have no patience for God’s transcendent vision. This is a book of noise, frustration and pain. B’midbar may be the world’s strongest counterrevolutionary tract. It’s a rebuke to all those who believe in the one cataclysmic event that will forever free humans from their chains. It’s a response to those who foresee that out of the apocalypse of political or economic revolution will emerge the New Man. Here is the people who stood at Sinai, who heard Truth from God’s mouth – unchanged, unrepentant and chained to their fears. The dream is beyond them. God offers them freedom, and they clamor for meat…At the end of the book we arrive in the Promised Land – exhausted, depleted, defeated – B’midbar gives way to D’varim – “words” – shared words, shared values, shared direction. Moses talks; people listen. Moses leads; people follow – now shared vision – now dialogue and consensus – the key word of D’varim is Sh’ma – D’varim is a book of listening. This is the Torah’s message of hope, that nothing worth doing in life can be accomplished without crossing the midbar. But the midbar isn’t the last word. There is a promised land of D’varim.” – Rabbi Eddie Feinstein, “The Wilderness Speaks,”  Modern Men’s Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, pps. 201-2013

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