“And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they left the Land of Egypt” (Num. 1:1).
How can we transform a no man’s land into a domain of sanctity? The Book of Numbers, which we begin reading this Sabbath, provides an answer. It addresses the uncertainties and complexities of transitions, from Egyptian servitude to desert freedom and from abject slavery to the possibility of redemption. Perhaps most importantly, it offers a glimpse into the complexities assailing the greatest leader in history, Moses, and the challenges he faced in leading this transformation.
A fierce advocate for his people and passionate lover of God, Moshe Rabbeinu is a towering persona who reminded a nation about its mission in the world and inspired humanity with his clarion call about the human right to freedom. Nevertheless, Moses left the world frustrated and disappointed, having been denied his dream of joining his people in the Promised Land.
Fortunately, God’s greatest prophet has been resoundingly vindicated by Jewish history. The Jewish people’s dramatic and historic return to the Land of Israel continues to draw inspiration from his teachings as well as from his legacy. The book that bears his name, “Torat Moshe,” is humanity’s blueprint for redemption.
It is with this context in mind that we approach the book of “Bemidbar” [“In the Desert”], an apt name for a work that documents the Jewish people’s 40-years of transition between Egypt and the Land of Canaan.
The Hebrew word for desert is midbar and contains meanings and allusions that in many ways have served as a beacon for our exile. An example of this is the word for leader, which, though most commonly referred to in Hebrew as manhig, our Sages also referred to as dabar, fully cognizant of its shared Hebrew letter root d-b-r with midbar (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 8a).
Just as the shepherd directs the flock using sounds and words, the leader of people must also inspire and lead with the verbal message he communicates. Indeed, the Aseret Ha-Dibrot [literally “Ten Utterances” but better known as the “Ten Commandments”] were revealed in the Sinai desert [midbar], and they govern the Jewish people as well as a good part of the whole world to this very day.
It was by means of these Divine words [dibrot] that even the desert [midbar] can be transformed into sacred space, the place of the Divine word (dibur). Indeed, the world is a desert [midbar] waiting to become a sanctuary [d’vir] by means of God’s word [dibur], communicated by inspiring leaders [dabarim].
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.