This week, we begin reading sefer Bamidbar, known as Numbers in English. It is called Numbers because it opens with an account of the census of adult males taken early in the second year after the Israelites left Egypt. But the Hebrew name, Bamidbar, is more fitting, for it means “in the wilderness,” and the narrative of sefer Bamidbar recounts the 39 years our ancestors spent wandering in the wilderness.
The parsha opens with the words, “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai,” and, of course, the rabbis connect Sinai with Torah. This connection is obvious, for as we will recall in two weeks on Shavuot, it was at Sinai that God gave the Torah to Israel.
This appears in Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah: “Why [did God speak to Moses] in the wilderness of Sinai? Our sages learned from this that the Torah was given to the accompaniment of three things — fire, water, and wilderness.” The midrash brings a proof-text for each of these and then continues. “Why was the giving of Torah marked by these three features? To indicate that just as these are free to all humanity, so also are the words of the Torah free to all.”
This appears to be a radical statement. After all, God gave the Torah to Israel because we were willing to accept it, and this is the heart of the brit, the covenant between God and Israel. But this midrash teaches that God purposely chose not to give the Torah in the Land of Israel in order to teach that this gift was not meant to be exclusive.
The gift of Torah does not make Israel more worthwhile, more valuable, or better than others. Rather, Torah brings with it a mission. We are to be “a nation of priests and a holy people.” When we live our lives according to the Torah’s lessons, we are serving as role models. We were chosen to receive the Torah in order to share its message — the principles of “ethical monotheism.”
We say at the conclusion of each of the three daily services, as part of the Aleinu prayer, l’takein olam b’malhut Shaddai, “to perfect the world under the sovereignty of God.” We are not praying that the whole world will embrace Judaism, but that all humanity will acknowledge God, whose primary demand of human beings is moral behavior.
God spoke in the wilderness of Sinai to teach us that no one nation or religion has a monopoly on righteousness. We Jews live Jewish lives, shaped by the laws, values, and rituals of the Torah. Christians live according to the Gospels, Muslims according to the Koran, and others by a host of sacred texts, systems of belief, and rituals. And that, we believe, is as it should be.
God gave the Torah in the wilderness because, as our rabbis teach, the righteous of all nations have a place in the World to Come.