As Open as the Wilderness

This week we find ourselves in the final days of Omer count-up, as we ascend towards the mountain and the holiday of Shavuot. This celebration of revelation -- where we recall the giving and receiving of Torah at Mount Sinai -- begins this Saturday night. Between now and then, we will also move through the Shabbat of Parashat Bamidbar, the opening section of the Book of Numbers.

This week we find ourselves in the final days of Omer count-up, as we ascend towards the mountain and the holiday of Shavuot. This celebration of revelation -- where we recall the giving and receiving of Torah at Mount Sinai -- begins this Saturday night. Between now and then, we will also move through the Shabbat of Parashat Bamidbar, the opening section of the Book of Numbers.

At a mincha/afternoon bat mitzvah service last Shabbat, I heard a preview of this Torah portion (as the mincha reading always features the opening verses of the coming week's parasha). In her Dvar Torah, Ella, the bat mitzvah student, focused on the title and first key word of the Torah portion: "bamidbar," which means "in the wilderness." Ella astutely compared the Israelites' formative period of wandering through the wilderness to an individual's teenage years, noting that in both cases, there's a need to explore identity questions and figure out what to do with new-found independence. Both wilderness experiences are fundamentally oriented towards growth.

She also cited a beautiful rabbinic teaching on the opening half of the first verse of of Bamidbar, which reads "God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai..." (Num 1:1). The midrash zeroes in on the word "bamidbar" itself, asking why the Torah was specifically given in the wilderness? Numbers Rabbah 1:7 boldly asserts: "It is to teach that... anyone who does not make themselves as open* (hefker) as the wilderness is not able to acquire wisdom and Torah."

(*In addition to "open," the word hefker could be translated as "ownerless" or "un-possessed." In rabbinic parlance, hefker either refers to something that can't be owned in the first place [e.g. a wild animal], or something that once belonged to someone but has now been renounced or abandoned [e.g. an old piece of furniture left on the sidewalk with a "free" sign on it, or a coin that's been dropped on the sidewalk and left behind such that there's no longer an obligation to return it if found].)

I find this such a striking and profound teaching: that each of us should aspire to make ourselves as open and "ownerless" as the wilderness in order to acquire wisdom and Torah. I've been thinking about this line all week, and as it's rolled around in my head, I've applied it to real-life situations in a variety of ways -- here are a few examples:

  • In a get-to-know-you session for our Israel-Palestine trip participants earlier this week, many reflected on their wish to remain open to experiences and people, stories and learning as we travel together in late June / early July. What a beautiful intention to set before travel, encountering new people, or embarking on any immersive experience!

  • As I continue reading commentaries about gun violence spurred by the tragedy in Uvalde, I am struck by the published lists I've seen this week of Senators and the number of dollars they accept from the NRA. The politicians who accept these huge sums are beholden to business interests that fly in the face of public health interests and human lives; this is the opposite of the ideal of making oneself hefker, open and ownerless enough to be able to make decisions that qualify as wise. How can we help cultivate greater openness and ownerless-ness in the political arena?

  • Creativity, too, flourishes in the presence of openness. I have appreciated having a window into Rabbi Jay's artistic process, as he has counted the Omer this spring through the spiritual practice of painting trees each day. At Kavana, we're dabbling in these creative modalities as well... see the bottom of the newsletter for an example from last weekend's Art Makerspace event.

  • Pride month began yesterday, and I've been marveling that a whole generation of children are growing up able to explore questions of gender identity and sexuality with more openness than any of us who are adults now can claim to have experienced in our youth. For anyone who's interested in learning more, Keshet has some great resources for Pride month; I'm also excited that this week the Conservative Movement issued a new teshuva (halakhic legal ruling) thoughtfully detailing how best to call non-binary people to Torah honors. We can all help our society grow and gain wisdom by cultivating openness in this arena as well.

I invite you to read this line of midrash once more: "The Torah was given in the wilderness to teach that... anyone who does not make themselves as open (hefker) as the wilderness is not able to acquire wisdom and Torah." This Shabbat, as we approach Shavuot - our celebration of learning - try to let this line roll around in your head too, and see what other connections and wisdom emerge.

As I close, I want to share with you a song, Tiftach Libi b'Oraita, that very much connects to this teaching. It was composed by my friend and colleague Naomi Less of Lab/Shul (one of Kavana's partner communities in the Jewish Emergent Network), together with Matt Check; the words come from Bei Ana Rachetz, the Aramaic prayer that's recited as we stand before the open ark in a traditional Torah service:

Tiftach libi b'oraita
v'tashlim m'shahlin d'liba'i
Open my heart to Wisdom;
Satisfy my heart's Longing.

Take a listen to Naomi Less singing it here, and take a deep breath. Imagine opening yourself up, so that you are as free and wild and ownerless as a wilderness, so that you are ready to receive Torah, learning and wisdom this Shavuot (and beyond). Please do feel free to be in touch to let me know how this midrash reverberates for you as well.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum