In the Wilderness: How to Receive Torah

Next weekend (June 11, 2016) is Shavuot, Festival of Receiving Torah, when we evoke standing together at Sinai to receive anew the wisdom we call Torah. As preparation, this week's Torah portion (Bamidbar – "in the wilderness") comes to remind us how to open ourselves to receive that wisdom anew. The lesson, it turns out, is about wilderness itself.

Torah recounts that "God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai," (Num. 1:1), and our ancestors seized on the word "wilderness." Sinai was wild and waste, desert of death save for miracles of food and water that sustained them, owned by nobody and open to all (in Hebrew,hefker).  Wilderness is naturally pure, miraculous, literally un-human – far remote from civilization's structure, noise, materialism and hubris. 

Torah was given in wilderness for that reason: purity, miracle, blasting away all illusion of human ownership and control, replacing ego and materialism with naturally loving transcendence and unity. As Yair Barkai put it, the wilderness of Sinai evoked human capacity "to listen to their inner voice, to their true feelings, to honesty at its best, and also [gave] them the ability to be open and receptive to what filters into the soul of the person contemplating the infinite expanses of the wilderness." In that state, the wisdom we call Torah naturally flows and evokes awe and wonder.

Put another way, to receive anew the wisdom we call Torah, "we too must make ourselves like the wilderness – hefker, open to all" (Num. Rabbah 1:7).

How to do that? How to make ourselves like the wilderness, open to all?  Tradition's ancient way smacks of Charles Dickens: "This is the way to acquire Torah – eat a morsel of bread with salt, drink only bits of water, sleep on the ground and live a life of asceticism all while toiling in Torah – so you will be happy in this world and prosper in the world to come" (Avot 6:4).  If you're reading this post, odds are that you won't opt to live that kind of life.  

Instead, try this. Cast off routine. Ditch usual clothes and usual foods. If you can, go somewhere rural. (I'll be at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in rural Connecticut.) Look up at a night sky full of stars. Let your gaze soften until mind and heart open so far beyond yourself that the innocent wonder of a child surges in – or better yet, lose yourself entirely. (In Viktor Frankl's words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.")

That wow quality of mind-heart-soul we call awe is a natural portal to transcendence. Through that portal, we can receive anew the wisdom we call Torah – a quality of wisdom that inspires us to do good in the world. It might even be that awe itself is the wisdom we call Torah, and all the rest is commentary. Now go and study.