Weekly Davar: Bamidbar 2024

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Davar Thought

I was once on a panel with Muslim and Catholic clerics talking about the spiritual truths that are common to all religions. Someone in the audience asked about the Old Testament and the Koran saying that both contain deeply troubling (to him at least) passages. Execution of ‘sinners’, war against idol worshippers etc. He asked how books could claim to be the word of God and yet contain ideas like this. Fair enough question.

Between us, we gave a few answers. I wanted to share one line of thinking that I suggested.

We begin the book of Bamidbar this week, which literally means ‘in the desert’. The holiday of Shavuot is coming up next week, the day on which the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, which was also in a desert. Lots of desert associations flying around with Torah. The Rabbis explain metaphorically. Anyone who wishes to become wise must make themselves like a desert. And this was my response to the question…if everything in the Torah made perfect sense to me the moment I read it, I would not bother. Why would I learn something that I knew already? Moreover, I would be certain that it was not written by God. Because surely God is so much wiser than me, and if my little mind could fathom the depths of a book immediately, then it cannot be God’s word. I’m certain that God has way more to say than what I can quickly comprehend.

I am happy, therefore, to see myself as a desert. Barren. Empty of wisdom. And, thus, allow room within me to be filled up. The more I think I know, the less space I leave for new learning. The more I realise I don’t know, the more I listen and have room to grow.

I find it arrogant, nowadays, to judge something as ‘wrong’ or ‘incorrect’. I can say that I don’t like something; I can say that I disagree; I can say that it seems wrong or doesn’t make sense to me at this point in my learning. But to say it is absolutely wrong is a place that I rarely go. Because there are two massive assumptions within such a statement: firstly, that I am understanding the issue to its fullest degree. And, secondly, that if I judge something to be true, it means that it is.

It resonates more with me to feel that I have more to learn, so much more to learn. And then to keep doing so.

This is a desert. Empty, barren. But that is its greatness – because pour even a small amount of water on it, and just watch how it sprouts to life.

Good Shabbos,

Shaul

Parsha in a Nutshell

This portion contains the census of the Jewish people – 600,000 men of army age, around 2.5 million souls in all. It also describes the passing of spiritual leadership from firstborn to Levite. The firstborn lost their position as a result of their involvement with the Golden Calf – now the formal transfer of power occurs.

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