Challenge #1: In twenty-five words or less—What is Torah? In ten words? In one word? Did your definition contents (the Five Books of Moses), components (laws, legends, religious history, social and ethical values), what Torah means to you, or something else altogether?
Challenge #2: We begin reading Sefer B’midbar (the Book of Numbers) this week and usher in Shavuot the moment shabbat departs. Is there a connection between the Wilderness experience and Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah), or is this just a curious juxtaposition?
Sefer B’midbar opens where Sefer Shemot (the Book of Exodus) leaves off: the beginning of the Israelites’ second year in the Midbar (“wilderness”). Before them is wilderness in every direction, and 39 years of wandering to go. With the Torah safely tucked away in the ark, the Israelites set out into the Wilderness. The first chapter of B’midbar paints a picture of exceptional organization and efficiency. On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt (Numbers 1:1), God commands Moses to take a census of the 600,000 males of military age: 20 year and up, and capable of bearing arms. Torah names the chieftains of each tribe and reports the census tallies, tribe by tribe. (It is not for naught that the book is called “Numbers” in English.) We are then told precisely where each tribal grouping was camped around the Tabernacle: the Israelites, counted and catalogued, are arrayed in perfect precision. Here is one depiction that captures this sense of the Israelites’ orderly and efficient encampment:
As marvelous as the literary image is, it’s only an image. The reality is turmoil and chaos. From their plaintive cries at the shores of the Reed Sea that slavery is preferable to freedom, to their worship of the Golden Calf at the base of the very mountain at the very moment where God was delivering the Torah to Moses, to the endless complaints, quarrels, and rebellions that characterize the Israelites’ next 39 years in the wilderness, we can confidently say that the Israelites’ time in the wilderness is characterized by discord, dissent, and disorder.
The one semblance of order and continuity in all this is the Torah itself. Shavuot comes to celebrate the gift of Torah, a gift that truly keeps giving. How so? I turn to a commentary by the hasidic master, Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev in Kedushat Levi. Commenting on כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, אֶת-מֹשֶׁה; וַיִּפְקְדֵם, בְּמִדְבַּר סִינָי As Adonai commanded Moses, he counted them in the wilderness of Sinai (Numbers 1:19), the Berditchever rebbe writes:
The verse would have made more sense in reverse order: Moses counted them, as God had commanded him [which, indeed, accords with Numbers 1:2-3, where God commands Moses to take a census]. But this appears to be the meaning: God gave the Torah to Israel, and the souls of Israel form the body of the Torah. There are six hundred thousand Jewish souls, parallel to the number of the letters of the Torah. Israel, in other words, are the Torah. Each one of us constitutes one of Torah’s letters. By counting Israel, therefore, Moses was learning the Torah. This is the meaning of the verse’s order. As Adonai commanded Moses means that the Torah’s commandment to Moses was the very act of counting Israel. That is also why it says, but do not count the tribe of Levi or lift up their heads among the Israelites (Numbers 1:49). Israel represents the Written Torah while the Levites stand for the Oral Torah. Therefore, of the Levites it says, [Moses] counted them by the mouth of God as he was commanded (Numbers 4:49).
Here’s Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s answer to Challenge #1: Torah is people. Certainly it contains the Five Books, and we can categorize its contents as laws or legends or history or ethics or social values, but Torah is people. How do we learn Torah? By counting people, by attending to the needs and concerns of those around us. Torah is all about creating a compassionate and just society; it is about counting people and making people count in our lives. To keep the commandments without regard to the needs of people is unthinkable. To treat Torah as a mere compendium of arcane ritual laws for the “truly devout” or worse, as a vehicle for boosting one’s stature based on scholarship—without regard to the needs of everyone, the concerns of the poor, and justice for those suffering—is to violate Torah’s core and thereby nullify its holiness. The Berditchever Rebbe understood this well. He is often called the “defense attorney” of the Jewish people before God. Filled with compassion for people, he would plead with God on their behalf.
The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) expresses this understanding in another way, one that has more universal sensitivity. It interprets verses in Sefer B’midbar chapter 21 that preserve a song the Israelites sang concerning their route through the Wilderness, with stops at Midbar, Mattanah, Nachaliel, Bamot, and Pisgah:
וּמִמִּדְבָּר, מַתָּנָה. יט וּמִמַּתָּנָה, נַחֲלִיאֵל; וּמִנַּחֲלִיאֵל, בָּמוֹת. כ וּמִבָּמוֹת, הַגַּיְא אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׂדֵה מוֹאָב--רֹאשׁ, הַפִּסְגָּה; וְנִשְׁקָפָה, עַל-פְּנֵי הַיְשִׁימֹן
And from Midbar to Mattanah, and from Mattanah to Nachaliel, and from Nachaliel to Bamot and from Bamot to the valley that is in the country of Moab, at the peak of Pisgah, overlooking the wasteland. (Numbers 21:18-20)
In tractate Nedarim 55a,b the Sages explain:
[55a] What is meant by, And from Midbar to Mattanah; and from Mattanah to Nachaliel; and from Naxhaliel to Bamot? — He replied, When one makes himself as the Midbar (wilderness), which is free to all, the Torah is presented to him as a gift [mattanah means “gift”] as it is written, And from the Midbar to Mattanah. And once he has it as a gift, God gives it to him as an inheritance [nachaliel comes from the root meaning “inheritance”], as it is written, And from Mattanah to Nachaliel. And when God gives it him as an inheritance, he ascends to greatness, as it is written, And from Nachaliel to Bamot [bamot means “heights”]. But if he exalts himself, the Holy One, blessed be God, casts him down, as it is written, And from Bamot to the valley [the valley is lower than the “heights”]. Moreover, he is made to sink into the earth, as it is written, Which is pressed down into the desolate soil [“pressed down” is a play on the word Pisgah, meaning “overlooking;” here it is understood instead as “pressed down” or “stepped on”]. But should he repent [of exalting himself], the Holy One, blessed be God, will raise him again, [55b] as it is written, כָּל-גֶּיא, יִנָּשֵׂא Every valley shall be exalted (Isaiah 40:4).
The Rabbis describe the spiritual and emotional process of making Torah our own. If we view Torah as free such that all are welcome to subscribe to it and draw wisdom from it, then it is truly a divine gift. Once we understand it to be God’s gift, we come to see it as our sacred inheritance, something that is intimately a part of who we are: where we come from and who we ought to be in the world. But if we misunderstand the inheritance of Torah as a vehicle for self-exaltation—a means to raising ourselves above others, be they fellow-Jews, or non-Jews—then we sink into the earth. The greatness we might have brought to the world through Torah is as if it were trampled underfoot or buried in the ground; it is lost to the world when Torah has become a means of self-aggrandizement. This is a trap it is all too easy to fall into. One who repents of such arrogance, however, will be raised up again by virtue of Torah to participate with humanity in tikkun olam, the repair of the world.
Challenge #2: Is there a connection between the Wilderness experience of the Israelites and Matan Torah (Giving of the Torah)? I believe the answer is yes. The Wilderness experience was one of turmoil and chaos amidst the vision of order and peace. Torah is the means to transforming turmoil chaos into order and peace, person by person, problem by problem, moment by moment. Torah is more than text(s). It is an attitude and a value system and a connection with the divine that inspires us with a vision of what ought to be and suffuses us with the conviction that much is possible.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman
In point of fact, there are 304,805 letters in the Torah. I’m not sure what the precise source of the tradition is that the number of letters in the Torah corresponds to the number of souls who left Egypt with Moses.It is mentioned in Zohar Chadash, Shir ha-Shirim, p. 74: “There are 600,000 letters in the Torah, just as there are 600,000 souls in the twelve tribes of the Israell". It may well be that Kabbalah is the source of this tradition. A popular tradition has it that “Yisrael” is an acronym for “Yesh Shishim Ribo Otiot la-Torah” (“there are 600,000 letters in the Torah”).