In the Wilderness of Sinai.
I’ve been counting a lot recently. I turned thirty this year. I become a Rabbi, after five years of study, on the 7th of July. I’m getting married on the 6th of October. I don’t have quite as many friends to invite to the marriage as I would like- I think about ten to twenty will make out to the States. I begin working at West London Synagogue on the 1st of August- I won’t tell you the salary, but it will be good to earn one. We’re always counting, just like the Book of Numbers that we begin this week. Our Torah reading begins by registering the date, the first day of the second month of the second year after leaving Egypt, and it then launches into a census of the 603, 550 Israelite men of twenty years upwards; these men, able to bear arms, are counted tribe by tribe. The act of counting tells us what we lack and what we’ve got, and I’m sure you too occasionally reflect on how old you are, what you’ve achieved, and how to measure it- whether it’s the size of your salary, your essay grades, your publication achievements or the number of people you can truly count on.
Let’s stop there! It can make me nervous this counting. It can also make us complacent. I became aware, as a child watching my parents entertain guests, of a certain sort of person, most often a man. He knows exactly what he’s got. During the dinner party he chats and grins and looks forward to going home to his place and complaining about the food and the other guests. I never wanted to become this self-satisfied kind of guy, and yet, perhaps I am only able to describe him in such confidently crass terms because I sometimes fear that he’s exactly what I’ve become. I fear becoming closed, too complacent with what I have, and too stressed about what I don’t.
The Hebrew name for the Book we’re beginning offers a contrast to this emphasis on Numbers, and it offers us a lesson too. Bemidbar, In the Wilderness. In the first words of the Book, “God spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai”. We push ourselves to acquire and achieve and yet, paradoxically, the most important moments occur when we let go of everything. I want to let go a little of the re-assurance of what I have and the worry of what I haven’t. A Rabbinic commentary (Numbers Rabba 1:7) on our first line of Bemidbar, on God speaking to Moses in the Wilderness, states that only one who makes themselves free like a wilderness can acquire wisdom and Torah, lived learning. It’s counter-intuitive. Perhaps I am not alone in being anxious about remembering and forgetting. I cram for exams. I look over notes repeatedly before presentations- and sermons. I frequently regret that I seem to have forgotten everything, from what I learnt for my degree to where I put my keys. Yet, the way to learn is not to acquire notes, scribbles and essays, but to let go, to make yourself into a wilderness. To share learning, to teach, and to look for every opportunity to ask someone else a question. To feel wild and unsettled like the dessert, such that you are open to everyone and belong nowhere. In the Talmud (Tractate Eruvin 54a) it even says that to retain learning one has to make themselves into a wilderness that “everyone will trample on”. We are only in tune with the world and others when we transform ourselves into nothing. We should aspire not to be the boss, but the shmattah, a slightly wild door-mat that everyone steps on. True learning happens in and leads to a place of radical humility, when we forget everyone we’ve got and everything we are, when we let go of all those Numbers.
But this is enough to make most of us go mad. We cannot be everywhere at once. Some of us could do with being more self-effacing while others need to be more self-assertive. One of us may fear becoming the self-satisfied, grinning chap at the dinner party, while others are too aware that our grins are nervous and we feel vulnerable- most of us perhaps veer between these two smiles, the smug and the nervous. So as well as being open, we need to count what we’ve got. As well as being like the wilderness, each of us stands at Sinai, knowing that you are unique and gifted and hugely impressive. Perhaps we can count not to acquire but to commune with each other and the world. Bertrand Russell writes in the Prologue to his Autobiography,
With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux.
Number holds sway above the flux, and as we start the Book of Numbers, we count the omer, looking forward to the moment of standing at Sinai, the moment of union with the world and those next to us. While making ourselves open like the dessert we also share a language by which to commune, a language of Torah and numbers. We count our blessings; we enact as many commandments as the days of the year and the bones in our body. We celebrate the seven days of the week with the seven blessings of the Amidah. We will soon celebrate our marriage to God at Shavuot- we will re-enact belonging to someone else and making a claim upon others. It’s a grown-up challenge: to be available to all, and open to change, on one hand, while embracing the demands of exclusive love on the other.
In balancing the openness of the wilderness and the specialness of Sinai, I look to my parents, to the way my father in his mid eighties has joined a new poetry group to which he schleps an hour and a half through the wilderness of London to share and learn. And I look to my mother who wouldn’t let us out on Friday nights, who taught us that the seventh day of the week is about communing.
I hope we can each stand paradoxically Bemidbar Sinai, in the Wilderness and at Sinai, making ourselves open as the world and yet communing with everything we are so lucky to have.
Benji Stanley LBC Rabbinic Student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.