Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from Rabbi Josh Feigelson. Josh, who received his Rabbinic ordination at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, serves as the Educational Director for Ask Big Questions, a national initiative of Hillel to promote civil dialogue on college campuses throughout North America. He will be joining us for his third summer on staff, where he will serve as one of our Senior Educators supporting staff in program planning and professional development. Josh is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at Northwestern University, where he served for six years as the Campus Rabbi of the Northwestern Hillel. Josh lives in Evanston with his wife, Natalie Blitt, and three sons – Toby, Micah, and Jonah, who will be a camper in Garinim 2013!

Bamidbar/Shavuot: Acquiring by Letting Go
by Rabbi Josh Feigelson

The Book of Numbers tells the story of the transition of the Israelites from freed slaves into a people capable of conquering and settling the land of Israel. The midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7) asks what is taught by the Hebrew name of Numbers, Bamidbar, from the opening words of the book: “And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.”

Why the wilderness (midbar)? From here the Sages taught that the Torah was given in three ways: fire, water, and wilderness. Fire: ‘And Mount Sinai was full of smoke’ (Ex. 19:18);  water: ‘the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped, the clouds also dropped water’ (Judges 5:4);  wilderness: ‘And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.’ And why was it given in these three ways? Just as these three are free and available to all, so too are the words of Torah, as it is said, ‘Every one who thirsts, come to the waters’ (Is. 55:1). Another teaching: ‘And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.’ One who fails to make himself ownerless like the wilderness is unable to purchase wisdom and Torah.
Elaborating on one of the concluding themes of Leviticus (“For the earth is Mine”), the Midrash here focuses our attention on the act of surrender conveyed in the notion of wilderness.No, not like the kikar at camp. Rather it suggests something like the idea of national park land–but even more so. It is a place outside of and beyond civilization, a place defined in opposition to the domain where our lives take place. The wilderness is the place we send the scapegoat on Yom Kippur. The midbar is a place devoid of ownership.
And thus the midrash presents us with a paradox: only in giving up the mindset of ownership can we purchase wisdom and Torah. Fire, water, wilderness: these are goods no one can lay claim to. They are open and available for all. Water and fire are rather obvious in this respect: they can simultaneously be tools for great good and great destruction. The wilderness, however, is not a force but a place, and perhaps more so a state of mind. It is the place we resist, the place we try to overcome as we erect the structures of civilization–not only physical structures, but the structures of language and thinking which make the world inhabitable for us. It is in this sense that the Hasidic master Sefat Emet writes of the Midbar, which shares the same letters as midaber–to speak: The wilderness, the midbar, is the place we unlearn and relearn our speech, the place we come to to reformulate our ideas of the world.
This is the paradox of Torah: to lay claim to it we must surrender our claims. To hear what it has to say, we have to allow ourselves to forget what we thought we knew. This, of course, is an ideal. It will encounter the reality of the world in the coming weeks. But as the holiday of Shavuot approaches, as it always does when we read Bamidbar, we linger for a few more moments in this place where we can unlearn and learn anew, the wilderness.