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Torah Attitude: Parashas Bamidbar/Shavuous: The Torah Nation

This Torah Attitude is dedicated to Larry and Miriam Deverett on the occasion of their anniversary and to wish mazel tov to their family on their upcoming aliyah to the Holy Land.

Summary

Why was the Torah given to the Jewish people in the wilderness and not in the land of Israel? The Mechilta 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 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. The Torah is available to 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 nations of the world expect the Jewish people to put ourselves at risk rather than to kill "innocent" individuals who live amongst the terrorists. In general, 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 evil forces that seek to destroy us.

In the wilderness

The name of this week's Torah portion "Bamidbar" literally means "in the wilderness". Many things happened to the Jewish people during their 40 years' sojourn in the wilderness. The greatest event was the revelation at Mount Sinai where G'd gave them the Torah. The Mechilta (Shemos 20:1) raises the question why was the Torah not given in the land of Israel? After all, the Jewish people, the land of Israel and the Torah are closely connected. In fact 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 in the Diaspora. So it would have been more understandable had the Torah been given in the place where all commandments do apply.

No man's land

The Mechilta offers two answers to this question. First of all, had the Torah been given in the land of Israel, the nations of the world could claim that they did not accept the Torah as they were under the impression that its laws only apply to those living there. Now that the Torah was given in "no man's land" the nations of the world cannot claim that they rejected it on the basis of nationality. Secondly, says the Mechilta, 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 a place belonging to no particular nation. This comes to teach that just as anyone can journey to this place in the wilderness, anyone can accept upon themselves the laws of the Torah. Although the Torah was given to the Jewish people, the 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 non-Jewish father-in-law of Moses, who went out into the wilderness 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, acquire and eat" (Isaiah 55:1). The Torah is a gift from G'd to the Jewish people, but anyone may acquire it. All that is necessary is to have the thirst for Torah.

Aleinu

At the end of every prayer service we recite the "Aleinu". In this prayer we express our 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". The late 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 originally established or lives in today. However, the Jewish people was originally established when the Torah was given in no man's land, and has for thousands of years been dispersed all over the world. When our ancestors entered 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 almost two thousands ago, and 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. 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, says Rabbi Emden, is the fact that the Jewish people has survived. After 2000 years of exile through which the nations of the world have tried everything to annihilate us, "Am Yisrael Chai"; the nation of Israel still lives on.

Special land

We can only marvel at this miracle, how we, by the grace of G'd, have survived our long and bitter exile. However, at the same time, we must realize that we can only reach our full potential and purpose once we return to our homeland under the leadership of Mashiach and rebuild the Temple. This tiny piece of land has a special holiness and spirituality, found nowhere else on earth. When G'd commanded Abraham to leave his country and birthplace (see Bereishis 12:1), He did not direct Abraham where to go. But Abraham knew to head towards the holiest place in the world, the land of Israel. Three times a day, we express our longing to come back home as we pray that G'd shall restore His glory and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, that we may again serve Him there.

Torah identity

Every year we celebrate Pesach to commemorate the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. 50 days later on Shavuous we celebrate that we received the Torah at the revelation at Mount Sinai. For 40 years we sojourned in the wilderness until we came to the land of Israel. We entered the land of Israel on the tenth of Nissan, a few days before Pesach, but this is neither celebrated as a separate festival, nor as part of the Pesach festival (see Bac"h Tur Orach Chaim beginning of Chapter 430). 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 Pesach 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. For only the Torah has preserved us after G'd scattered us throughout the world.

Shavuous

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 gave us our identity as a Torah nation. But just as our ancestors accepted the Torah 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 the 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. We often hear strong criticism of how Israel responds to terrorist attacks and treat the Palestinians. Despite the constraint exercised by the Israeli army, even friendly countries question 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 ourselves at risk rather than to kill "innocent" individuals who live 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 do they set double standards when it comes to Israel and the Jewish people?

Deep-rooted hatred

To answer this we must first of all realize that, in general, 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 a member of 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 live up to what the Torah expects of us in regards to the laws 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.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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