Sermon at Lev Chadash: parashat bemidbar and hachnasat sefer torah May 2023

Bemidbar Lev Chadash May 2023

Sefer Bemidbar begins with a strangely precise location in time and place:

  וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד:  בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית, לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם–לֵאמֹר.

1 And the Eternal spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying:

The effect is rather like the first lines of a ketubah, a marriage contract, which details the date and the place of marriage very precisely, before going on to record the terms of the agreement between the two parties, something which the mystical tradition develops, seeing Shavuot as the wedding between God and Israel, where the Torah is the ketubah – the covenantal document.

And yet this precision masks something else – we simply don’t know where the conversation took place exactly – Midbar Sinai, the wilderness of Sinai – is by definition uncharted land.

The book is called  the book of Numbers – to reflect the two censuses of men of military age that take place within it, a title given in the Greek translation (Septuagint) and carried over into other biblical translations, but its Hebrew name gives us a different perspective which Jewish tradition finds to be the most important way of seeing the narrative – BaMidbar – in the wilderness.

Wilderness – it conjures images of deserted wasteland, a place of emptiness and of silence. And yet the word Midbar conjures the opposite. Derived from the verbal root “Daled, Veit, Reish” , its “sister” words from the same root include “diber”– to speak, tell, or promise,  Davar – a matter or a thing, and also – though less frequently – to arrange, to command, to appoint, to commune, to guide….

Lots goes on in the Midbar, it is a multi-vocal sort of place, brimming with possibilities and with material realities – not really a wilderness at all.

There is much rabbinic material that speaks to the Torah being given in midbar – in territory that belongs to no one and to everyone. Midbar is universal space, so the giving of Torah within it is a reminder that God’s word is universal.

Why was the Torah not given in the land of Israel?  In order that the nations of the world shall not say: “Because it was given in Israel’s land, we do not accept it.”  And lest others say: “In my territory, the Torah was given and so only belongs to me.”  ….“Therefore, the Torah was given in the desert, publicly and openly, in a place belonging to no one.

To three things the Torah is likened: to the desert, to fire, and to water. This is to tell you that just as these three things are free to all who come into the world, so also are the words of the Torah free to all who come into the world” (Mekhilta B’Chodesh 5).

We were formed as a people in the desert. The torah documents the process from Egypt to the borders of Israel: the sloughing off of slavery, the evolving of structures such as the priesthood to give us focus and religious leadership, the development of social codes enabling us to form a coherent community with shared values and shared focus.  And most importantly our desert formation gave us a particular framework through which to live – in the desert there is no need for the accumulation of material goods, “it is the place of nomads who have that which they need, and all they need is the essentials and not the extra belongings…life in the desert is preparation for a life of freedom” (Erich Fromm). And instead of attending to the acquisition of material goods, something else becomes our treasured possession – the Torah. 

The midrash gives us the reason that God led us in the desert for forty years “Said the Blessed Holy One, “if I lead them directly, then every person will take possession of their field and their vineyard and will work in them, and not engage in Torah. Instead I will lead them through the midbar, where they will eat the manna, and drink the water of the wells (of Miriam) and the Torah will embed into their bodies” (Midrash Tanchuma, Beshallach)

In the Midbar we were given Torah, we received Torah, we absorbed Torah. We became a people of Torah. The name of this book reminds us of our desert formation, nomadic and without possessions, we created ourselves through Torah.

Later in the book we read about part of the journey the people went on to take

וּמִשָּׁ֖ם בְּאֵ֑רָה הִ֣וא הַבְּאֵ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָמַ֤ר יְהֹוָה֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֔ה אֱסֹף֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וְאֶתְּנָ֥ה לָהֶ֖ם מָֽיִם׃ {ס}         אָ֚ז יָשִׁ֣יר יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את עֲלִ֥י בְאֵ֖ר עֱנוּ־לָֽהּ׃

…….וּמִמִּדְבָּ֖ר מַתָּנָֽה׃    וּמִמַּתָּנָ֖ה נַחֲלִיאֵ֑ל וּמִנַּחֲלִיאֵ֖ל בָּמֽוֹת׃

And from there [they went ] to Be er, which is the well where God said to Moses, “Assemble the people that I may give them water.” Then Israel sang this song: Spring up, O well—sing to it— …..And from Midbar to Mattanah, and from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamot…. (Num 21)

This text frames our relationship with Torah. Mattanah is a place name, but it also means “a gift”. Nahaliel means a “wadi of God” – a valley through which water flows, but the root of the word can also mean an inheritance;  and Bamot means high places.

In Talmud we read a homily using this sequencing:

Rava said: Once a person renders himself like a wilderness, deserted before all, the Torah is given to him as a gift [Mattanah], as it is stated: “And from the wilderness Mattanah.” And once it is given to him as a gift, God bequeaths [naḥalo] it to him, as it is stated: “And from Mattanah [to] Nahaliel.” And once God bequeaths it to him, he rises to greatness, as it is stated: And from Nahaliel, Bamot, which are elevated places. And if he elevates himself and is arrogant about his Torah, the Holy One, Blessed be God, degrades him, as it is stated: “And from Bamot the valley” (Numbers 21:20). And not only that, but one lowers him into the ground, as it is stated: “And looking over [nishkafa] the face of the wasteland” (Numbers 21:20), like a threshold [iskopa] that is sunken into the ground. But if he reverses his arrogance and becomes humble, the Holy One, Blessed be God, elevates him,  (BT Nedarim 55a)

Unpacking the text is a joy – Rava, a fourth generation Babylonian teacher (amora) is one of the most frequent of teachers in the Talmud. Here he is using these verses to remind his audience of how Torah impacts us and develops and grows us both as individuals and as a people. To be able to absorb Torah deeply we have to make ourselves ready, to be open to everyone and everything, and to have no preconceptions or prejudices. Once we have made ourselves “like a wilderness”, then Torah is given to us like a gift. A gift moreover that comes from God as an inheritance, a family treasure. And this gift, if received in a state of humility and openness, will enable us to become greater, will develop and evolve our understanding of our world. But if we should become arrogant, then the opposite will happen and we will be forced into humility, alone in an abandoned wasteland. Yet there is always the possibility of redemption – should we recognise that we have become removed from others, arrogant and self-important, and make an effort to cast off that unwarranted superiority, once more the offer of Torah and its “living waters” is available to us.

One of my favourite ideas about the encounter with God in the wilderness of Sinai is that “the people only heard the first letter of the word “Anochi” “I am”. That letter, an alef, is a silent letter.  But that silent letter in that Midbar place was all that was necessary for God and the Jewish people to have a conversation (R.Menachem Mendel Torum of Rymanov, quoted in  Zera Kodesh (2.40) by his student Naftali Horowitz)

Why a silent letter in a place belonging to no-one? The Alef, being the first letter of the alphabet stands for the number ONE – the unity and uniqueness of God.

But there is more. The Alef is written in Torah as a vav surrounded by two yods – whose gematria adds up to 26 – the same as the gematria for the tetragrammaton yod heh vav heh. So what the people perceived in hearing that silent letter was the absolute presence of God.

And there is more. The Alef can be read as being a face, with two eyes (the yods) and a nose (the vav). So when we see another human being, we can see an Alef – we can see the image of God within them.  When Torah was given to us, the most important gift was to see God in ourselves and others.

All of which is a long way of saying that we encounter God when we truly see and engage with each other. We truly belong to Torah – and it to us – when we make ourselves open and without prejudice, when we exercise our curiosity without judgment – when we become Midbar and celebrate the potential within us.

The Midbar formed us as a people and it is as a people that we have sustained ourselves and thrived where so many other peoples have passed into history. And the Torah gave our peoplehood meaning – as Leo Baeck wrote “

The Torah, which is, as a whole, roughhewn, unfinished, and unsystematic leaves many things open. It is full of questions. [And so]…The Torah is the most stable element of Judaism and at the same time its most dynamic force”

 It is as a people of Torah that we are meeting today – from Pittsburgh to Milan, and with roots that go back to Israel, to north Africa, to Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Italkit and Mizrachi ancestors. We were all at Sinai says our tradition, we all heard that alef, we all experienced Midbar.

And just like at Sinai, we are enacting the giving of Torah – maybe not exactly as Moses experienced it, but giving and receiving just the same, and it is surely no accident that you have come to us from Temple Sinai so that we are indeed receiving Torah miSinai!

It is a singular mitzvah to be part of hachnasat Sefer Torah – the welcoming of a sefer torah into its new community. Today’s welcoming is the end of a long process of planning, and I hope the beginning – or at least the Sinaitic staging post – of a longer journey together.

We stand together and see in each other’s faces the Alef that reminds us that God is in each one of us; we hear together the silent Alef of God’s presence that is symbolised by the Torah – the ketubah text of our symbolic marriage that will we will celebrate again next week at Shavuot.

I think all of us present today will remember this moment – this echo of Sinai, this enactment of peoplehood, this generous gift from another part of the Jewish world that will help Italian Progressive Judaism to continue to grow, and that will remind us that we are not only a people – Am Yisrael – but also a large and extended family –  Mishpacha. 

We are at our best when we are Midbar. When we are open and free from material desires and preconceptions, when we are humble and curious about each other. Abraham’s tent was famously open on all sides – the paradigm of Midbar.  As Abraham shows, the outstanding mitzvah in Midbar is hospitality to the passing stranger who is reliant on the care of the more established residents.  When we are Midbar we see the Alef on every face – the image of God in every human being and we understand the importance of sustaining each other.

This weekend we are all Midbar, welcoming of each other, sharing our stories, eating together, travelling together, praying together, giving and receiving Torah. The distance from Pittsburgh to Milan may be nearly seven thousand kilometres but does not need a 40 year journey – we stand together once more as at Sinai, we confirm our peoplehood and our commitment to Torah.

May our journey continue together and may we build ever closer links.

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