B’midbar: In the wilderness

“And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…(B’midbar 1:1)
The azure sky encompasses
the parched and barren land:
an untouched, silent vacuum
devoid of mortal ploys.

No stamp of human grandeur
imprints the endless sand;
no thoroughfares are chiseled
through the undulating dunes.

Standing in the wilderness
we wait with open hearts:
we may yet tend the desert
and find our way to Eden.

Parashat B’midbar, which begins with God speaking to the people (through Moses) in the wilderness of Sinai, is always read on a Shabbat close to (and before) Shavuot when we celebrate receiving the Torah. The Sages point out that this reminds us that the Torah was given in a wilderness. The Talmud (Nedarim 55a) says, “One should be as open as a wilderness to receive the Torah.” The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS adds, “It is intimidating to open oneself to the demands of God, to a new and morally demanding way of life. The Torah portrays the people Israel periodically wishing they were back in the predictable, morally undemanding servitude of Egypt. Yet Israel’s willingness to accept the Torah, to be “as open as a wilderness” to let the Torah’s morality fill the moral vacuum in the lives of former slaves, was the essential first step in God’s remaking the world. For the first time, God’s world will contain a moral people, guided by the Torah to live a God-oriented life.
The wilderness, untouched by human settlement, offered a contrast to Egypt, which was dominated by monuments fashioned by human hands…We may even see a parallel between the revelation at Sinai (when God imposed moral order in the midst of a wilderness) and the creation of the world (when God imposed natural order on chaos).”
Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin* comments on the hint contained in the proximity of Parashat B’midbar to Shavuot: “It comes to tell you: Whoever keeps the Torah can turn the face of the wilderness from desolation to a veritable garden of Eden, as it is written, “…and He will make her [Zion’s] wilderness like Eden and her desert like the garden of the Lord…” [Isaiah 51:3]”
Rabbi D. Shoham** is quoted in Itturei Torah (compiled by Aharon Ya’akov Greenberg) as follows, “And there is a further hint in that Parashat B’midbar is always read before Shavuot, the Season of the Giving of our Torah. To teach you that if someone wants to merit receiving the Torah, he must make himself like a desert, he should have a great measure of humility and feel that he has nothing and before whom to be proud, and he should know that he is bare and lacking, like the wilderness.”

*R’ Shlomo Yosef Zevin (1888 – 1978) was one of the most prominent Orthodox Zionist rabbis of the 20th century. Together with Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan, he founded the Encyclopedia Talmudit, a Hebrew halachic encyclopedia, of which he was chief editor until his death.
R’ Shlomo Yosef Zevin was born in 1888 in Kazimirov (near Minsk), where his father, R’ Aharon Mordechai, served as rabbi. The younger Zevin’s education was a combination of both Lithuanian and Hasidic influences.
At a young age Rabbi Zevin was appointed rabbi of Kazimirov, and served as editor of the journal “Shaarei Torah.” He later served as rabbi of Klimon and Novozybkov. He took an active role in the underground struggle to preserve Jewish observance in Soviet Russia after the Communist Revolution. Beginning in 1921, he edited a Torah journal “Yagdil Torah,” together with Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky of Slutsk; for which he was imprisoned by the Communist authorities. He founded Orthodox Jewish journals which addressed contemporary problems.
He began at a young age to serve Russian Jewry in various communal capacities. During the brief period of Ukrainian independence after World War I, Rabbi Zevin served as a member of the Ukrainian parliament. He also served as a member and officer of the parent body of Jewish communities in Ukraine.
In 1935, Rabbi Zevin settled in Israel and began teaching at the Mizrachi-affiliated Bet Midrash L’morim. He also served as a member of the Council of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
He held religious Zionist views and would eat a festive meal on Yom Ha’atzmaut.
Rabbi Zevin frequently corresponded with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whom he had met for the first time in Russia in the mid-1920s. Part of this correspondence is printed in the Igrot Kodesh series. He was also among the influential scholars to encourage Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson to accept the leadership over the Chabad movement after the passing of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, in 1950. He used concepts in Chabad philosophy to clarify halachic principles.
In addition to the Talmudic Encyclopedia, R’ Zevin authored nine other works, among them L’Ohr HaHalachah – essays on both practical and abstract halachic topics, including a halachic analysis of the legal and moral questions presented in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice; Ishim Ve’shitot – biographies of selected 19th and 20th century sages with analyses of their individual methods of study; and Sippurei Chassidim – Chassidic tales arranged by parasha and festival.

**Rabbi D. Shoham. Although he is cited in Itturei Torah, I can find no biographical details about him.


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