Interestingly here in Bamidbar the text refers to Sinai not as a mountain, but rather as a wilderness (midbar); a change in terminology that interests our ancient rabbis. “Why” they asked, “was the Torah given in the wilderness, rather than in the Holy Land?” Their answer is quite instructive. “If,” they suggest, “the Torah had been given in Israel, then the people of the world could have said that they had no part in it” (and we, conversely, could have said it only belongs to us). “But, since it was given in a land belonging to no one, therefore everyone who wants it is free to receive it.” This text dramatically reminds us that though we may have brought forth the Torah to the world, it is now the property of all humanity, rather than just the Jewish people. Indeed it is through the sharing of this gift from the Divine that we become a “light unto the nations.”
This midrash is only one of several where the rabbis shift our notions about the meaning of Torah, reminding us of its universality for all humanity. Indeed, another text suggests that the Torah was given simultaneously in 70 languages. This number is not accidental or random. Rather, for our ancient sages it represents all the languages of the earth, one for each of the seventy nations. Today, of course, we realize that the babble of humanity is found in far more than seventy languages. Yet, the rabbis’ point is well taken. Again, they suggest that the Torah is not the property of a single people, nor was it given only in Hebrew (the lashon kodesh, the holy tongue) but in every language for all people - perhaps also a reminder that every language can be holy.
A third midrash builds on this point in a dramatic way. The Torah, it suggests, has something in common with the Mona Lisa. Just as La Gioconda looks directly at every viewer, so it is with the Torah. Every Israelite at Sinai felt that the Torah was given directly to them. Indeed, each one received it in appropriate language, relevance and complexity. It was given for the wise, the wicked, the simple and one who does not know how to ask! This text is especially compelling for modern Jewry if taken in conjunction with the belief that every Jewish soul (past, present and future) was present in the Wilderness of Sinai to receive the Torah. The Torah is a timeless text given to each of us in every generation. On Shavuot each of us stands at Sinai, and is challenged to accept Torah. We take up this challenge when we hear and read the text in for our own time and place. We accept the Torah when we insure that it speaks not only to us, but also to future generations.
Of course, while the Torah is a text of often great beauty and profundity, yet hearing, reading and even interpretation are insufficient. When given the Torah our ancestors answered both na-aseh (we will do) as well as nishma (we will listen). Torah only becomes real when the words that we hear shape our lives. Torah is a transformational verb, which must lead each of us to a life of mitzvot and Tikkun Olam.
The parasha adds a final reminder of the importance of each human voice as we receive and actualize Torah in our lives. Bamidbar begins with a great census, as each of the Israelites (sadly only the males) is counted in preparation for the journey across the desert. Judaism has mixed views on such enumerations. On one hand, there is strong reaction against reducing people to numbers, so much so that it is even forbidden to count people for a minyan. On the other hand, the census is a reminder that each individual is important, and that we as a people and as humanity are lessened when any voice is absent or silenced. It is also a reminder that each of us needs to stand up and be counted, and that each of our sacred journeys is important.
This week on Shabbat as we read Bamidbar, and especially as we prepare to accept the Torah on Shavuot, we need to be ready to stand up and be counted. We need to hear the Torah in all its simplicity and complexity, and in all its languages. But, it is not enough only to only to receive, we must listen to its voice as it speaks to our unique time and place. We must listen and then actualize it to build a better world for all humanity.