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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, this ensures that 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 other nations of the world, the Jewish people does not derive its identity from its country. 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 understanding of 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 Jewish people are expected to put our own people at risk rather than to kill "innocent" lives of those living amongst the terrorists. The nations of the world have a deep-rooted hatred against us. 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 to the Jewish people in the desert during their 40 years' sojourn from Egypt to the land of Israel. The greatest event was the revelation at Mount Sinai where G'd gave the Torah to the Jewish people. The Midrash raises the question why the Torah was not given in the land of Israel. After all, the Jewish people, the land of Israel and the Torah are closely connected. This manifests itself by the fact that 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 do not apply outside of the land of Israel. So it would have been more understandable had the Torah 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 to this question. First of all, if the Torah had been given in the land of Israel, the nations of the world could claim that they did not accept the Torah as it appears only to apply to those living in that particular country. Now that the Torah was given in "no man's land" rather than in a particular place belonging to one nation, the nations of the world have no excuse that they rejected it on the basis of nationality. Secondly, the Torah was given outside the land of Israel in order to avoid strife between the 12 tribes of Israel. Had the Torah been given in a particular place in the land of Israel belonging to one tribe, that tribe might have argued that the Torah was only given to them.
Available to all
The Midrash Rabba (Bamidbar 1:6) offers an additional reason why the Torah was given in the desert belonging to no particular nation. This comes to teach that just as anyone can journey into the desert, anyone can accept upon themselves the laws of the Torah. Although the Torah was given to the Jewish people, the knowledge of Torah is available to anyone who is ready to apply their lives to its teachings. Any gentile can follow in the footsteps of Yisro, the father-in-law of Moses, himself a non-Jew, who went out into the desert to accept the Torah.
Thirst for Torah
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 who, like Yisro, so desires may acquire it. All that is necessary is to have the thirst for Torah. G'd in turn will provide the Torah to quench anyone's thirst.
At the end of every prayer service we recite the "Aleinu". In this prayer we express an appreciation that "… [G'd] has not made us like the nations of the lands and has not emplaced us like the families of the earth". Rabbi Chaim Friedlander explains that unlike all other nations of the world, the Jewish people does not derive its identity from its country. Every other nation has a "homeland" where the nation was born. However, the Jewish people was "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. This teaches us that we do not depend upon a homeland to survive. We were banished from the land of Israel for thousands of years. We have been persecuted by most of the nations of the world. We have suffered from the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Pogroms and the Holocaust. Despite it all we still exist as a nation all over the world. In his introduction to his commentary on the Siddur, Rabbi Yacov Emden writes about all the miracles that the Jewish people has experienced. But the biggest miracle of all times, writes Rabbi Emden, is the fact that the Jewish people have been able to survive. After 2000 years of exile the nations of the world have tried everything to annihilate us, but "Am Yisrael Chai"; the nation of Israel lives on.
We can only marvel at this miracle how the Jewish people, by the grace of G'd, has survived our long and bitter exile from the land of Israel. However, we must realize that 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, found nowhere else on earth. When G'd commanded Abraham to leave his country and birthplace (Parshas Lech Lecha Bereishis 12:1), He did not have to direct Abraham where to go. 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 again serve Him there.
Every year we celebrate Pesach to commemorate the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. 50 days later we were given the Torah at the revelation at Mount Sinai which we celebrate on Shavuous. For 40 years we sojourned in the desert until we came to the land of Israel. We entered the land of Israel at the time of Pesach, but this entry is not celebrated as part of the Pesach festival. For sure we are bound to this special country by our souls and bodies. We long to return there as we exclaim at the end of the Passover Seder and at the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service "Next year in Jerusalem". However, the essence of our identity is our relationship with the Torah. Only the Torah has preserved us as G'd scattered us throughout the world.
We are about to celebrate the holiday of Shavuous. This celebration entails both G'd's readiness to give us the Torah and the Jewish Nation's acceptance of the Torah. This acceptance at Mount Sinai gave us our identity as a Torah nation. But just as the Torah was accepted then, we too have the opportunity and privilege to accept the Torah upon ourselves every year. The more the Jewish people unite and connect to Torah, the stronger we stand as a nation. And this is our only guarantee for Jewish continuity and safety for future generations.
How can the whole world be wrong?
We seem to find a strange phenomenon in the way the world deals with the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. In the past, there has often been great criticism of how Israel responded to terrorist attacks. Despite the constraint exercised by the Israeli army, even friendly countries have questioned its methods. Any other nation would long ago have 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?
First of all, we must realize that the nations of the world have a deep-rooted hatred against us. This hatred stems from the fact that we actually are different. They simply view us as the "ugly duckling" amongst the nations. They know that G'd chose the Jewish people and gave us 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. Often 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 work harder to 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 the strength and Divine assistance that we need. It will also ultimately gain us the respect of the world around us. We must always remember that the more we guard the Torah, the more the Torah guards us. And the sooner that 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