We Lose Our Self to Find Our Self
B’midbar: Number 1:1-4:20
The midrash relating to the opening of this week’s Torah portion, “B’midbar,” meaning: “In the wilderness;” asks its reader: “Why was the Torah given in the wilderness?” Why not, our rabbis wondered, give the Torah in the more spiritually elevated Promised Land atop Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, for example? Besides, why give the Torah in the desert to a generation of stiff-necked people whose spirit had been crushed by years of enslavement? Giving the Torah in the Promised Land to the first generation of born-free Israelites offered the possibility of greater spiritual readiness on the part of the recipients.
The answer to these questions has to do with purpose. On one hand, Torah is akin to a spiritual conveyor belt whose purpose is to support anyone interested in personal growth and insight into Truth, to expand one’s consciousness through practice. As such it offers laws, guidelines and paths to follow; all of which are made universally available. Torah doesn’t discriminate as to where one finds oneself when embarking on one’s spiritual journey. One doesn’t need to already be at a specific level of consciousness, spiritually ready, to step onto the path of Torah. There is no Promised Land to have reached before being able to receive Torah; it is available to all of us — stiff-necked or not. Torah was given in the desert because, oftentimes, that’s where we find ourselves as we take our first step on our spiritual journey. As the Chasidic masters explain: “The desert is the most miserable of all places. Having received the Torah there, Israel could take its Torah to the deprived of the earth, and from lowliness ascend to the heights.”
On the other hand, that the Torah was given in the desert teaches us about the purpose of the path itself. The questions the rabbis of the midrash ask, are reflective of our own resistance to embarking on any kind of spiritual journey. We are the ones endlessly postponing our commitment to our path, waiting for the “right time” or the “right conditions.” We wait for our Jerusalem, for our life to be in that “Promised Land” place where we’ll finally have the time, resources and support to really do it. Once our life is no longer chaotic, unpredictable, and open-ended — the very definition of wilderness — then we will be able to receive Torah, to engage fully in our spiritual practice. Not only will that day never come, the path itself invites us to take steps in the opposite direction. The Torah was given in the desert because that’s exactly where our spiritual unfolding is taking us that we might become available to deeply hearing her teachings; that’s where she is inviting us to meet her. Awakening to the empty Truth of who we are can only be attained through emptying ourselves from all that we believe is our self. The process is one of deconstruction, of unknowing, of embracing uncertainty, unpredictability and open-endedness. In other words, the desert is where we lose our self in order to find our Self. As the midrash ultimately answers: “Who knows Torah? Those who make themselves like the wilderness.”