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Torah Attitude: Parashas Bamidbar/Shavuous: The Torah Nation
Why was the Torah given to the Jewish people in the desert and not in the land of Israel? The Midrash offers two answers. First, the Torah cannot be rejected on grounds of nationality. Second, this avoids possible strife between the 12 tribes. The knowledge of Torah is available to all. Unlike all the other nations of the world, the Jewish people do not derive our identity from the land that we live in. The tiny land of Israel has special holiness and spirituality. The essence of the identity of the Jewish people is our relationship with the Torah. G'd provides the Torah to quench the thirst of anyone who desires to acquire the ultimate knowledge. On Shavuous, we have the privilege and obligation to accept the Torah upon ourselves every year. The sooner we return to the ways of the Torah, the sooner we will be insulated from the ways of the evil forces that seek to destroy us.
In the desert
This week's Torah portion "Bamidbar" literally means "in the desert". Many things happened in the desert during the 40 years' journey from Egypt to the land of Israel, the greatest of which was the giving of the Torah by G'd to the Jewish people. The Midrash questions why the Torah was not given in the land of Israel. The Jewish people, the land of Israel and the Torah are closely connected. Many of the 613 commandments contained in the Torah can only be fulfilled in the land of Israel. For instance, most of the agricultural commandments are not applicable outside of the land of Israel. So it would have been more understandable if the Torah had been given in the land of Israel, rather than in the desert.
No man's land
The Midrash (Mechilta Shemos 20:1) offers two answers: first of all, if the Torah was given in the land of Israel, the nations of the world could say that they did not accept the Torah as it only applies to those living in that particular land. Since the Torah was given in "no man's land" and not in a particular place belonging to one nation, the nations of the world have no excuse to reject it on the basis of nationality. Secondly, it was in order to avoid strife between the 12 tribes of Israel. If the Torah was given in a particular place in the land of Israel belonging to one tribe, that tribe might argue that the Torah was only given to them.
Available to all
The desert where the Torah was given belonged to no one nation. Just as anyone can journey into the desert, anyone can journey into the teachings of the Torah. The knowledge of Torah is available to any and all that wish to apply their lives to its teachings. Just as Yisro, father-in-law of Moses, a non-Jew, was able to journey into the desert to acquire the Torah, so too can anyone else make the journey.
At the end of each of the three prayer services in the morning, afternoon and night, we recite the "Aleinu" and express that "… [G'd] has not made us like the nations of the lands and has not emplaced us like the families of the earth". Explains Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, unlike all the other nations of the world, the Jewish people do not derive our identity from the land that we live in. Every other nation has a "homeland" where the nation was born. The Jewish people were born where the Torah was given, in the desert, in no man's land. When our forefathers entered into the land of Israel, they were already a nation. We do not require a homeland to survive. We were banished from the land of Israel for thousands of years. We were persecuted by most of the other nations. We suffered from the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Pogroms and the Holocaust. After 2000 years of exile, it is the biggest miracle of all times, writes Rabbi Yacov Emden, that the Jewish people have been able to survive. The nations of the world have tried everything to annihilate us, but "Am Israel Chai"; the nation of Israel lives on.
Although the Jewish people, by the grace of G'd, has survived during our long and bitter exile outside the land of Israel, we can only reach our full potential and purpose once we will return there under the leadership of Mashiach and rebuild the Temple. This tiny land has special holiness and spirituality. When G'd commanded Abraham to leave his country and birthplace (Parshas Lech Lecha Bereishis 12:1), He did not have to point Abraham in the right direction. Abraham knew to head towards the holiest place in the world, the land of Israel. Three times a day, we pray that G'd will restore His glory and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem that we may serve Him there.
The exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt occurred during Pesach and 50 days later we were given the Torah at a time celebrated as Shavuous. For 40 years we journeyed in the desert until we came to the land of Israel. Although we entered the land of Israel at the time of Pesach, our entry is not celebrated as part of the Pesach festival. Although our souls and bodies bind us to the land of Israel, as we exclaim at the end of the Passover Seder and at the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service "Next year in Jerusalem", the essence of our identity is our relationship with the Torah. More than anything else, the Torah has preserved us as G'd scattered us throughout the world.
Thirst for Torah
Ideally, Torah is available to anyone, Jew or non-Jew, who desires it. The prophet Isaiah compares the Torah to water and says, "Ho, everyone who is thirsty, go to the water, even one with no money, go, buy and eat" (Isaiah 55:1). The Torah is a gift from G'd to the Jewish people, but anyone, like Yisro, who so desires may acquire it. All that is necessary is to have the thirst for Torah. G'd will provide the Torah to quench the thirst.
We are about to celebrate the holiday of Shavuous, the time of the giving and the acceptance of the Torah. This acceptance at Mount Sinai gave the Jewish people our identity as a Torah nation. But just as the Torah was accepted then, we too have the privilege and obligation to accept the Torah upon ourselves every year. The more the Jewish people unite and connect to Torah, the stronger we become as a nation, and this is the only guarantee for Jewish continuity and safety.
How can the whole world be wrong?
In the past, there has been great criticism of how Israel has responded to the terrorist attacks. Every country, sometimes even the United States, and sadly, especially Canada, have questioned the methods of the Israeli army. Any other nation would have long ago used the full force of its army to destroy its enemies. But the Jewish people are expected to put our own people at risk rather than to kill "innocent" lives of those living amongst the terrorists. If anything, the Israeli army has demonstrated that they are not barbarians like so many of the armies of the world. How can the whole world be so biased? Why does the rest of the world set double standards when it comes to Israel and the Jewish people? We must realize that the hatred of the nations of the world stems from the fact that we are different. Others view us as the "ugly duckling" amongst the nations. Since G'd chose the Jewish people to give them His Torah, this made us unique and set us apart from the rest of the world. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the world expects the chosen people to live and behave by a higher standard, the standard of the Torah. The moral and ethical ways of the Torah Nation have always been expected to be on a higher level than of everyone else. As soon as the Jewish people did not live up to the expectations of the gentile world, they were only too quick to point a finger and ridicule us, at best. At worst, they would issue harsh decrees and punishments. They would instigate pogroms and make our lives miserable in every way possible.
Return to the ways of the Torah
So what can we do to change all this? The truth is that there is very little we can do to change the attitude of the nations of the world. All the various "isms" that well-meaning Jews created to make us more popular, or to give us equal status with the other nations, have failed. However, we can change ourselves! We can mend our ways. We can fulfill the obligations the Torah commands between man and his Creator, as well as between man and his fellow human beings. This will give us strength and Divine assistance. This will gain us the respect of the world around us. The more we guard the Torah, the more the Torah guards us. The sooner we return to the ways of the Torah, the sooner we will merit seeing the final redemption from this long and bitter exile through our righteous Mashiach. Amen.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network