Bamidbar- June 7, 2024

“On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the

exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the

wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting.”

(Numbers 1:1)

       This Shabbat morning we begin reading the fourth book of the

Torah.  In English it is called Numbers, based on the careful numbering

of the people of Israel before they begin their travels through the


But in Hebrew the book is called bemidbar – “in the wilderness.”  It is

the story of the forty years of wandering through the wilderness.  

One might think that the people Israel loved the desert.  On the contrary,

they called it “an empty howling wasteland.”  (Deuteronomy

32:10).  The forty years of wandering through the wilderness is actually

a punishment for the people’s lack of faith.

       This Tuesday night, we begin celebrating the Jewish festival of

Shavuot.  Shavuot commemorates the events on Mt. Sinai, the giving of

the Ten Commandments, and ultimately, the revealing of the Torah.  Mt.

Sinai is an unknown place in the middle of the wilderness. We think it’s

in the Sinai peninsula but strangely, no one knows for sure its exact


       Jewish tradition is deliberately vague about the exact location of Mt.


One might ask the question – why did we not receive the Torah in a holy

place like Jerusalem? 

The answer is that God deliberately chose a place in the middle of the

Wilderness, a place unclaimed by any nation.  

Why the wilderness? 

Rabbis through the ages have offered many answers.  One answer that I

like is that the Torah was not given in territory exclusive to any

nation.  Rather it was given in a place accessible to every nation. 

The Torah was given to everyone, all humanity.  The Midrash would

later say that the Torah was given in every language spoken on

earth.  All humanity, not just the people Israel, can learn from the Torah.

       One of my fundamental religious beliefs is that the wisdom of the

Torah is universal. 

All human beings can learn from it.

When teaching about the chapters of the Torah on food, I may mention

the Jewish dietary laws in passing.  But my main concern is eating as a

human act – how can all human beings make the act of eating holy?  

When I speak about marriage, I might mention something about the

Jewish wedding ceremony.  But my major concern is marriage as a

human institution – how can we human beings rise above the animal

within us by sanctifying relationships.

When I teach about our customs of death and burial, for instance, the

main lesson in all those rituals is that life is a blessing… a gift from

God…our bodies mere vessels that walk this planet for such a short


The real message, the universal one, is what are we doing with the

limited amount of time we may be given?

Are we using our time as God would want us to use it?

       The Torah was given at Mt Sinai, in an unspecified place in the

middle of the wilderness, to teach a powerful lesson:…..The Torah is not

the unique property of any one nation.

         The wisdom of the Torah is universal, with lessons for all nations

to benefit. 

Yes… the Torah was given to the people Israel. 

But way back at the beginning of Genesis, the people Israel are

told that through them will all the nations of the world be blessed.

       One more thought to drive home the message that the Torah is a

universal document: 

On Shavuot, many Shuls read all or part of the book of Ruth. 

Ruth is the convert par excellance.  

She is born of a Moabite family, a people who are to be kept separate

from Israel.  Yet she chooses to commit herself to the Torah and the

Jewish people, following her mother-in-law back to Israel. 

Not only does the Torah contain wisdom for all humanity. 

But for those human beings of every background who choose to join the

Jewish people, the door is always open.

Isn’t life like a desert?

We all have to live off the land. Without water, we perish.

Every now and then there appears an oasis.

It could be someone who opens a door for us… Someone who teaches us

a great lesson that guides us through all our lives.

Sometimes there’s a sandstorm.

Maybe our cellphones fall in a puddle of rainwater and all our phones

and addresses are wiped out.

We’re suddenly very alone in the world. It’s like being in a desert, isn’t


For us, our knowledge might be the saving water that allows us to go on,

to rebuild.

My brother, who lives in Israel, before he made Aliyah, had a beautiful

home in Weston, here in South Florida. One Saturday night after

Shabbat was over, he and his wife went out for an hour to buy some

needed groceries. When he returned, his home was in flames. They had a

pot of coffee on the Mr. Coffee and there was an electrical spark from

the coffee maker that spread to the whole house. All of his personal

photos, tapes, records and such were destroyed.

People sent them photos, tapes, and all sorts of things but the main thing

was that he and Melinda were able to go on.

Their memories were deep and not to be forgotten.

They were able to rebuild and move forward.

That’s how it is in a desert after a sandstorm. We humans have the

knowledge to be able to move on.

Maybe that was the significance of the desert?…to show us that even

when times are bleak, G-d gave us the wherewithal… to find the next


The other great message of Bamidbar, which begins by taking a census

of all the people who survived Egyptian slavery, is that by taking a

census we learn that …EVERY JEW COUNTS.

In the turbulent world in which we all live, standing up and being

counted as Jews is more important than ever.

If we’re not people who like to stand out front, we can do lots of other

things to be counted.

We can buy Israel bonds, we can support the Jewish National Fund, we

can support AIPAC, an organization that raises money to find bi partisan

support for the State of Israel among our elected leaders.

Thousands of Jews in Israel are living in hotels and can’t go back to

their homes.

Children need schooling and lots of help from professionals in the social


Many businesses are shut down.

Agricultural crops are rotting on the trees because no one is there to pick

the crops and package them for shipping.

We…you and I…can be an oasis of hope for our fellow Jews in Israel.

It’s up to us to step up and be counted.