My first exposure to the study of the Bible was in the Yiddish language. We spoke only English at home, but almost all the teachers we had in the yeshiva I attended were Holocaust survivors who had escaped to the safety of these shores only a few years prior.
We learned to translate into Yiddish by rote and had little conception of what the words meant in English. Thus, we translated the very first verse of the Torah as “In der anfang hatte der Oibeshter bashaffen,” not having a clue that in der anfang meant “in the beginning,” that the Oibeshter was “the One Above,” and that bashaffen meant “created.”
When we reached Sefer Bamidbar, we finally had a teacher who, although he continued to provide the Yiddish translation, told us in broken English what the words meant in the language we understood. And he would even provide visual aids, photographs and drawings, which would help us truly grasp the meaning of what we were studying.
I’ll never forget his opening lesson. He told us that we were beginning a new book of the Torah, and a new weekly Torah portion, which both went by the name “Bamidbar.” “In Yiddish,” he said, “the word Bamidbar means ‘in der veesternisht.’”
We were about nine years old, and the word veesternisht triggered giggles that soon morphed into hilarious laughter. There is something about the sound of the word that is comical to me to this very day.
He waited for our laughter to subside, and then said that veesternisht in English meant “a desert.” He showed us a picture of the Sahara. “The Jewish people were wandering through such a desert,” he explained, “and the entire book that we are beginning to study took place there.”
He then asked if we remembered coming across the word veesternisht earlier in our studies, in a slightly abbreviated form.
It was my dear friend Michael, who passed away some years ago, who remembered that first verse in Genesis contains the phrase “tohu vavohu,” which is generally translated as “unformed and void.” In Yiddish, the phrase is rendered as “poost und veest,” “empty and desolate.”
amidbar is the Torah portion we read this week, which is always read on the Shabbat before Shavuot. I researched about a dozen biblical translations, including some non-Jewish ones, and found that only a few translated “Bamidbar” as “in the desert.” The vast majority preferred the word “wilderness,” so that the key phrase in the first verse of our parsha reads, “The L-rd spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…”
Although the dictionaries I consulted did not distinguish sharply between “desert” and “wilderness,” it is the latter that rings true as the English equivalent of the Yiddish veesternisht — an empty, confusing, and frightening wasteland. It was in that wasteland that our ancestors wandered for forty years, and it is that wasteland that we received the Torah.
Why? Why was the Torah given in this wild and chaotic terrain?
Like most questions of this sort, numerous answers have been given over the ages. I would like to share with you an answer that makes great sense to me.
If one reads further than just the first verse of this week’s parsha (Bamidbar 1:1-4:20), he discovers that although the image we have of the wilderness is one of disorder and confusion, the narrative theme of these several opening chapters is one of order and systematic organization. The tribes are divided into 12 distinct units, each one is assigned its own unique flag or banner, and its place in the procession through the wilderness is precisely specified. The entire parsha can be summarized as “making order in the midst of chaos.”
It strikes me that the ability to organize one’s environment in a beneficial and orderly manner is a basic human skill that every society must first possess before it can proceed toward greater cultural achievement.
Having said that, we can appreciate that before the Torah could be given to the Jewish people there was a necessary prerequisite: the establishment of a functional society in which people could get along with each other in a peaceful and productive manner. Only in such a context could the Torah be properly absorbed.
There is an ancient saying which states this idea unequivocally: “Derech eretz kadma laTorah,” literally translated as “the way of the world precedes Torah” (Midrash Vayikra Rabba, 9:3). More generally, it means one must first have an ethical, just and humane society. Only then can one proceed to Torah.
We can classify this week’s Torah portion as the parsha of derech eretz, because in it a nation successfully copes with the trials and tribulations of its environment. It tames a wilderness by creating civilization. It deals with a wasteland by establishing a functioning and equitable society.
That is why it is precisely this parsha that precedes Shavuot. Shavuot is the anniversary of Matan Torah, of the Divine revelation, the giving of the Torah. The Almighty does not reveal Himself to a people who cannot get along with each other in an orderly and civilized manner. He does not express His will to individuals, communities, or nations who, in today’s jargon, “can’t get their act together.”
He does not give His Torah in a wilderness, in a wasteland, in a veesternisht. He expects us to first act toward each other with derech eretz, respectfully and courteously. He demands that we first tame that wilderness and cultivate that wasteland. Only then are we deserving of His great gift.
Derech eretz kadma laTorah. Humane behavior first, and only afterwards the Torah. That’s how it was that very first time in the wilderness of Sinai, and that’s how it must be this weekend, when the Shabbat of Bamidbar immediately precedes the festival of Matan Torah.