By Simon Jacobson
May 9, 2002
We always read the Torah chapter Bamidbar before
the holiday of Shavuot, when the Torah was given at Sinai.
The technical reason for this is because the Torah was given
in Bamidbar Sinai, in the Sinai Desert. However that only
carries the question over: Of all places why indeed was the
Torah given in a desert?!
The question can be further broadened. Why was
it necessary for the Jewish people to wander 40 years before
entering the Promised Land? Was 210 years of hard labor in
Egypt not enough suffering? Why liberate them from Egypt only
to put them through another 40 oppressive years?!
One of the most powerful messages that ever
touched me is the teaching of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur
Zalman of Liadi, in his Tanya. He explains that the purpose
of life on Earth in not for the tzaddik (righteous person),
who does not have an evil inclination and therefore does not
face the true struggles of life. The purpose of creation is
the average man (the ‘benoni’) who faces a constant struggle
between good and evil.
Judaism does not tell us that life is easy and
that faith is bliss. On the contrary. We were placed in a
wilderness and life is a battle. And it is precisely this
battle that G-d intended us to face. Therefore, do not be
disturbed or demoralized by your challenges, by your inconsistencies
and by your weaknesses. Do not be shaken when you do not live
up to your highest aspirations, and often do not actualize
or maintain your inspiration. Do not be discouraged – because
this struggle is the fundamental purpose of all of existence.
At the same time we must always know that each
challenge, no matter how difficult, comes with tools to face
that challenge and come out stronger.
Had the Torah been given in a beautiful city,
then all we would have is a guide on how to live in beauty.
“Torah lo ba’shomayim hi,” Torah is not in heaven. It was
given to Earth, in order for us to use it to bridge heaven
and earth. Torah was given intentionally in a wilderness in
order to teach us that Torah is a guide for real life amidst
real challenges. It’s not a book for la-la land and for naïve
escapists. Torah is called Torat Chaim, the Torah of life
– it addresses the harsh realities of living in this difficult
This message is relevant today more than ever.
True, 3314 years have passed since the Torah was given at
Sinai. We seem to have long left the wilderness, and the journeys
of the past seem a long distance away, relegated to the annals
of history. Yet, they have come alive today in ways that no
one would have imagined just a year ago.
Growing up in modern times had created an illusion
that we are no longer living in a wilderness. We had tamed
the elements, built great cities, developed civilizations
and cultures. We had become a highly advanced society – a
far cry from the wilderness of the past.
September 11th and the global tremors
that have been unleashed since have rudely reminded us that
in many ways this world is still a wilderness. Not just the
deserts of the Middle East, but downtown Manhattan was turned
into a desert one bleak Tuesday morning 8 months ago. The
raging primal passions of religious beliefs are shaking the
world to its core.
Perhaps this ‘revelation,’ this awareness that
the world is after all still a wilderness, is an eye opener
that is meant to tell us: Do not be afraid. G-d created the
world this way so that we humans tame and subdue the wilderness.
And G-d gave us a precious gift – the Torah – which serves
as a beacon of light to illuminate the dark roads of our journey
through the wilderness.
The key is not to deceive ourselves into thinking
that the world is just fine and we can remain passive and
complacent. We must be wise and awake to life’s traps and
realize that life is a struggle. At the same time we must
know that we have all the tools necessary to face the struggle
and prevail. Not just prevail but thrive and grow, and transform
the wilderness into a garden.
This is the calling of our times: To introduce
the universal message of Torah to the world. To create Sinai
in the wilderness. Is there a more appropriate message today?