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 world.
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?