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Parashat Bemidbar 5782

June 3, 2022

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The Torah is for Everyone
A D’var Torah for Parashat Bemidbar
By Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04)

Before the Sinai Desert was returned to Egypt in the Peace Treaty of 1978, it was possible to take a bus directly from Tel Aviv to the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, Sharm el Sheik. I boarded that bus alone on my Spring Break of 1973 when I spent a year in Israel. I intended to camp out on the beach and snorkel on the reefs of the Red Sea off Sharm El Sheik. There were only a few of us on that bus, including a Bedouin man. We traveled for hours through seemingly interminable and vast expanses of wilderness. When we think of “wilderness” in North America, we imagine tracts of virgin forests with wild rivers flowing through them untouched by human hands. We think of nature “untamed” by humankind. The “wilderness of Sinai”, however, is anything but green. Through the window of my bus, I saw immense rugged landscapes of reds and browns, with hills, mountains, canyons and plains passing by. Suddenly, the Bedouin man traveling with us pulled the cord above the window of the bus, requesting a stop. I looked out the window for a bus stop sign or a bus shelter. The bus pulled over to the shoulder of the road, and the Bedouin got off — IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE! There was nobody to pick him up, not in a jeep, not on a camel. He descended from the bus and simply took off on foot to heaven knows where.

That is where our Torah portion for the week picks up this Shabbat – BeMidbar – in the wilderness. Elsewhere, the Torah describes the wilderness of Sinai as

…..A land of deserts and pits,
A land of drought and darkness,
A land no man had traversed,
Where no human being had dwelt…

Why would G-d choose such an inhospitable, barren and forbidding place to give the Jewish people the Torah? We declare in our Torah service – Ki Mitzion Teitzei Torah – The Torah “goes out” to the world from Jerusalem. Yet, G-d decided to give the Torah to the Jewish people in the wilderness. Would it not have been better to wait until they reached the Holy Land to bestow the Holy Torah upon the Holy People?

Our Rabbis teach that the Torah was given in the wilderness because just as nobody owns the wilderness, so no people have exclusive right to the Torah. We can own the Torah, but we are not its owners. It is free and is open to all. One does not have to be Jewish to learn from or be inspired by the Torah.

This is a lesson to take to heart when it comes to our non-Jewish friends and family who are part of the larger Jewish community. We often think of their participation in our rituals and celebrations as primarily supporting roles in our Jewish spiritual lives or our sense of belonging to the community. Less often, perhaps, do we consider their participation as having a personal meaning for them. One non-Jewish woman commented that when she recited the shema with her Jewish family, she was reminded of the Jews throughout history who could not recite this prayer in safety and security. She also noted that the shema was something she could say about G-d that felt true and authentic to her. Jewish practice and study can be nourishing and sustaining, can provide a sense of belonging and believing, not just to Jews but to gentiles as well. At our synagogue we often host students and guests during services from different colleges and different religious backgrounds. In the process of learning more about Jewish prayer and ritual, they also learn a little Torah. Some go on to study with us on a weekly basis. Some come a few times; others, for years to study Torah with us.

If any person comes to study Torah out of a search for truth, or to deepen his or her relationship to G-d, then they should be encouraged to explore the wisdom that Judaism has to offer. The Torah, as it states in the Book of Deuteronomy, is a “Morashah Kehillat Ya-akov” – “A precious inheritance of the Jewish People”. It is an inheritance worth sharing with the rest of humanity.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04) is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville, Illinois and is the current President of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.