Bamidbar 5771 — A matter of the heart

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This d’var Torah was written for and first published on the Rabbis for Human Rights web site.

“And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai” …Numbers 1:1

Open? Or closed?

Gather more information? Or is your mind made up already?

Heart of stone? Or heart of flesh?

This week we begin reading the book of Numbers (a name I don’t like much), in Hebrew called Bamidbar (wilderness, a name I like much better).

Numbers for me implies dry, pre-determined, everything known. Several familiar expressions in English make the point: “do it by the numbers;” “I’ve got your number.”

“Wilderness” on the other hand has connotations of the outdoors, wild, free, open, no fixed boundaries. Streets have numbers (at least in America! Fifth Avenue, 52nd Street). Forests do not. As the Paul Simon song goes, “I’d rather be a forest than a street.”

There are important lessons we can learn from the wilderness. Midrash Bamidbar Rabah teaches “AND THE LORD SPOKE UNTO MOSES IN THE WILDERNESS OF SINAI. Anyone who does not throw himself open to all like a wilderness cannot acquire wisdom and Torah; and so it is said, IN THE WILDERNESS OF SINAI.”

“Anyone who does not throw himself open to all like a wilderness cannot acquire wisdom and Torah.” This is truly a remarkable teaching. It seems to imply that a yeshiva bocher (Torah student) sequestered in the beit midrash (study hall) all day cannot acquire wisdom and Torah. To acquire wisdom and Torah you must be open to others, to other approaches, and not only that, you must be open to the real world, in all its “wildness,” not just the tidy world of the study hall.

You might argue, perhaps the midrash just means we should be open to other “Jewish” points of view, but how do we know this also applies to being open to non-Jewish ideas? Abraham, the first Jew, famously had a tent that was open an all sides, so that he could welcome visitors from any direction. Obviously the people Abraham was welcoming weren’t Jews. They weren’t even monotheists: imagine, they must have been idol worshippers!

Perhaps we can see how wisdom requires exposure to other ideas; but why does the midrash also say you cannot acquire Torah without being open to all?

Another midrash tells us shivim panim l’Torah, there are 70 faces to the Torah. If we only learn from other people whose opinions mirror our own, our knowledge of Torah is incomplete. A true understanding of Torah means absorbing many different approaches, not just one.

Furthermore, the Torah is not intended to be only an abstract book for learning theory. God gave it to us as an instruction manual, a guide for life. The lessons are incomplete if we don’t bring the Torah’s teachings into connection with the real world, just as a would-be chef who only reads a cook book and never cooks anything can’t really claim to have mastered the lessons, no matter how well he does on a written test.

The openness of the wilderness is not something that is limited to abstract intellectual ideas. It is also a matter of the heart. To acquire wisdom, our hearts must also be open to others. We must have hearts of flesh, not hearts of stone, we must be sensitive to the feelings and pain of others as well.

This is an important principle in human rights work. Our motivation to serve God in this way, through the holy task of defending other people’s human rights, comes from a place of compassion, of seeing and feeling other people’s pain. Finding solutions means being “open to all like a wilderness” for we will not find solutions if our hearts and minds are closed.

And being open to all means truly being open to ALL. Not just being open to those whose opinions mirror our own. If we are open to the pain of the refugees from Africa seeking shelter in our land, we should also be open to the fears and concerns of the residents of south Tel Aviv who may be worried about their livelihoods or their security. If we are going to combat racism, as difficult as it might be, we have to listen to racists and try to understand where their fear or hatred comes from.

In Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma teaches “Who is wise? He who learns from every man.” Even (or perhaps, especially) from those with whom he disagrees.

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