This week’s Torah portion is Parshas Bamidbar, which is also the name of the fourth book of the Torah. The word bamidbar literally means “in the desert.” The desert is where the Jewish people received the Torah and transitioned from their time in Egypt to their time in Israel. There is nothing coincidental in Judaism, especially names. Therefore, we must understand why of all words, a desert is called a midbar, and what this can teach us.
Sfas Emes (Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847-1905) points out that the root of the word midbar (daled-bais-reish) is the same as the word “to speak.” He also points out that the same root can mean “to lead.” Therefore, he argues, “midbar” can mean “to be led.” To be led means that you have given over your trust to whom you are following; in this case, G-d. For the Jewish people to have arrived in the midbar means that they have arrived at a mindset where they are aware of what their new role as bnei chorin, free people exiting Egypt, entails. They are free people in the sense that they are free to now follow and trust completely in G-d. Perhaps this is the Torah’s way of indicating that since the Jewish people left Egypt they have indeed matured and gone through a transformative process.
Elsewhere, Sfas Emes explains that the Torah was given in the desert specifically as a way to have the light of Torah spread in a place of tohu, void. Torah has the ability to spread out into every nook and cranny and breathe life into darkness. Usually, the more something is spread out, the thinner it becomes. Play-Doh, for example, starts as a large unit. The more you spread it out, the thinner it gets. Torah is the opposite. The more you spread Torah, the more it grows. It does not become thin or diluted. Rather, Torah only becomes richer. Sfas Emes then explains that just like the Torah was given in the midbar, so too each of us needs to make ourselves into a midbar. In order to imbibe the lessons of the Torah, we must lessen our own egos. In a sense, one must open oneself up like the vastness of a desert.
When one is in the midbar, where there is virtually nothing else, all man has is his bitachon, trust, in G-d. Nothing grows in the desert from which man can get sustenance. There are no plants and there is no water. Man must completely rely upon G-d to survive. Perhaps this is why the Mechilta (16:4) explains that only those who ate manna, sustenance directly from G-d, were fit to receive the Torah. One cannot expect to reap the benefits from G-d only at the moment where His presence is obvious. The true test of one’s bitachon comes at those moments where one is alone.
We should make ourselves into a midbar. We should open ourselves up to the beauties of the Torah and the willingness to follow in G-d’s beautiful ways.
Parshas Bamidbar, Rabbi Mordechai Weissmann