In books, on stage and in film, the setting of a story is, itself, a character, providing a sense of realism, giving the actors options and limits, and interacting with them.
The same is true in the Torah; every backdrop is part of the story, whether Canaanite territory or Egyptian empire or Har Sinai or Mishkan. And with the start of a new chumash this morning we are introduced to another player: Midbar, Wilderness.
Of course, we’ve met the midbar before; the Jews already hungered for food and thirsted for water back in Parshat Beshalach, right after they crossed through Yam Suf. But that was a cameo appearance; the midbar was quickly subdued by Mun and Miriam’s well and Aharon’s clouds, and then fully eclipsed by Har Sinai and the Mishkan. Only as the Jews move away from Sinai does the midbar, the wilderness, come to the fore.
Watching our ancestors interact with the midbar setting teaches us valuable lessons:
The midbar offers a lesson in humility; in a wilderness, all beauty is natural, all artifice is overtaken by nature, all property is communal.
As the gemara explains, HaShem gives the Jews the torah in a midbar to teach that we need to be humble in order to receive the Torah. Certainly, Moshe already taught the Jews this lesson with his own modesty, but there is a difference between observing humility in Moshe and being enveloped in humility in an environment that declares, “All property is nothing.”
And a midbar offers a lesson in isolation; the Jews receive the Torah in the desert in order to afford them the opportunity to focus on this Divine gift without need to plant their fields, maintain their homes or engage in commerce. Indeed, in the midbar a large group of women established their homes at the Ohel Moed and devoted their days to Torah study.
Third, a midbar is tabula rasa, a blank slate on which our story can be scripted, an open canvas on which we can paint as we choose. In a desert wilderness, a society with neither incumbent wealth nor predetermined heirarchy, Ahaliav from the tribe of Dan can become master craftsman of the mishkan and a nation of slaves can demonstrate spiritual greatness.
No other biblical environment would have suited all of these ends – the humility, the isolation, and the tabula rasa:
• Canaanite Israel lacked isolation; the same was true for Egyptian slavery.
• The Mishkan was the opposite of humility, a grand construction outfitted with beautiful silver and gold and embroidery.
And so, this week, we meet the Midbar environment in which the Jews will work through their growing pains, enduring rebellions and hunger and suspicion while studying the Torah and achieving personal, tribal and national greatness.
Some might compare the midbar to childhood - at what other time in our lives have we accomplished so little, at what other time in our lives are we as unentangled from others, at what other time in our lives does the future lie so pliable before us? We are tempted to believe that childhood is the ideal, midbar-like time for a Jew to embrace Torah.
But I believe the comparison to childhood is a mistake of great consequence; people who believe they missed their chance in childhood abandon hope of change, instead of taking the opportunities that yet lie before them.
It is never too late. Always, we can return to the midbar, if not in practice then in state of mind.
• Always, we can develop humility.
• Always, we can pare down our distractions.
• And, always, we can envision life as a canvas on which to paint afresh and build great things.
Perhaps the best proof of this point is in that Jewish nation which entered the midbar. True, they were newly formed as a nation, but their slate was actually no cleaner than ours; they had a great and complex history behind them:
• They had been Avos and Imahos, patriarchs and matriarchs, a family with wars and treaties both without and within;
• They had been slaves, and they had seen their captors punished;
• They had been heroically persevering families as well as rescued damsels in distress;
• They had been idolaters, and they had stood at Sinai witnessing Divine revelation.
This was not a child-nation, emerging blinking into the sunlight for this time – but it was capable of nonetheless viewing its future as a blank slate, and creating a brilliant and enduring legacy for its descendants.
On the first morning of Shavuot, we precede the Torah reading with the public recitation of Akdamus, an Aramaic poem describing Divine might and introducing the Torah reading itself. Toward the beginning of the poem, we describe Gd creating the universe with the letter ה, a letter which is just a breath, the simplest exhalation, demonstrating that for Gd, creation is simple and the possibilities are infinite.
For us as human beings, creation is anything but simple and easy – but when we, like the Jews in the midbar, look at the world as a blank slate and an opportunity for accomplishment, then for us, too, there will be few limits.
1. We are honoring an outstanding volunteer couple this Shabbos, and right before the Akdamus closer I will speak about them as people who view life as a blank slate. They are great people. And they also read this blog. Hi, JP!
2. Eruvin 54a comments on the intentional presentation of the Torah in a wilderness.
3. On creation of the world with a ה to signify Divine power, see Midrash Tehillim 62:1 and Bereishit Rabbah 12:2, but also see a different explanation in Menachot 29b that it’s about the possibility of return and repentance.
4. I actually wanted to make the whole derashah about the two different explanations of the ה-based creation, but had to give up late Friday morning when I just couldn't make it work. I am not terribly pleased with this derashah - I don't think it adds much to people's knowledge or gives new perspective, except the idea of setting as character and the point about the Jews not entering the midbar as a blank slate - but perhaps some other year.