This week we start the fourth of the five books of the Torah, Bamidbar (the first portion in each of the five books is the name of the book itself).
Each of the five books has its own unique concept. The Netziv (19th century Lithuanian Rabbi) explains that the concept of Bamidbar is the commandments that will be incumbent upon the Jewish people once they enter the land of Israel, such as many of the laws of the Temple.
If this is so, why is this book called Bamidbar — in the desert? The desert would appear to be incidental to the essence of this book, the place they happened to be while they were commanded these laws. Why define this book as in the desert?
We can answer this question through using a fundamental point raised by Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsh. Why was the Torah given in the desert, asks Rabbi Hirsh. Shouldn’t G-d have waited till the Jewish people were in their own country (Israel)?
The answer he states is deceptively simple. The Torah is not dependent on any specific time or place. Therefore, the Torah had to be given in a place that is ownerless, a place like the desert. That is because the Nation of Israel is only a nation by virtue of our having received the Torah. Being Jewish, by definition, connotes observance of the commandments of the Torah. The emphasis on the giving of the Torah had to be on the Torah itself, not the place.
This has proved to be true. Whether the Jewish people were in Israel or out, the Jews who remained committed to their Judaism did so by virtue of their keeping the Torah.
That is why this Book is called Bamidbar — in the desert. The emphasis was on what the Jews had learnt in the desert, not where they would practice it. Of course our ultimate goal, after we are redeemed, is that all the Jewish people will be in Israel with the rebuilt Temple, practicing all of its laws. In order to reach that goal, however, we must observe the commandments, regardless of where we are.
We have mentioned that the Torah is above time. From this we see it is also above space — that it is relevant wherever a Jew is located. The Jewish people have kept the Torah in North Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, Eastern and Western Europe, North America, South America and Australia. And we will continue to keep the Torah until the coming of the Messiah.
Rabbi Jay Spero is the rabbi of the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.