May 20, 2004
Parshat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1 - 4:20)
The Midrash on this Torah portion contains a fascinating note. When the question is raised, why God chose to give the Torah in the desert (and not, for example, on Mount Zion in the land of Israel), one classic rabbinic interpretation given is that the locale is to teach us a lesson by analogy: "Kol mi she-eino oseh atzmo k'midbar hefker, eino yachol liknot et ha-chokhma v'et ha-Torah" (Anyone who does not make oneself like a desert hefker, cannot acquire the wisdom and the Torah) (Ba-Midbar Rabbah 1:7).
The word hefker is tough to define. It means ownerless, but also has a sense of wild or lawless. The desert analogy instructs -- ownerless expanses; little in the way of lines, roads, paths -- untamed, inhospitable environs.
I don't think that this line from the Midrash is telling us to live lives of disorder. The very theme of Torah portion Bamidbar is the ordering of the Israelites around the Mishkan, the holy habitation built by the Israelites to house the Luchot Ha-Brit, the Tablets of the Covenant that Moshe received on Sinai. We are counted, numbered, named and set in our array around the place from which God's light and word proceeds into our hearts. If this Torah portion is about the great ordering, what are the sages telling us when they say you cannot acquire Torah unless you become hefker -- wild and untamed?
The Midrash is saying something rather stark, almost ominous in its austerity: Only the ownerless can acquire wisdom and Torah. If you have a law, you cannot acquire this law. The tame need not inquire, we are told.
Imagine our mental and moral habits as just that -- habits, habituations, well-worn paths and modes of being. The world can never be new, not because it is not, but because we cannot experience it as such.
Perhaps this defines slavery of the spiritual sort, the slavery the sages say we took out of Egypt with us. Our bodies had been liberated, we are taught, but our souls -- our minds, our hearts -- remained in prison. To what conceit, what kind of spiritual slavery is this stark teaching from Midrash addressing itself? That we own ourselves? That we are autonomous -- self legislating? That we have a sufficient law? We don't need Torah and wisdom to be revealed to us -- we are full and already claimed?
This spiritual ennui is not a condition of the old in age, of much-lived life. The mind condemned to confines is a malady of spirit, a resignation to living in ruts. I know as many young people with tamed souls as I know older people who live in that desert hefker, in that wilderness where maps are sought and earned daily.
One could use the metaphor of a young mind to describe this desert hefker, but that would imply that youth of its own knows the experience of hefker, the ownerless willing to be owned by something transcendent that demands a great, seeking disorder if life to be lived well. Don't the young often already find themselves stuck in destructive patterns of thought and feeling? Don't the young sometimes sigh with a sense that they cannot renew themselves, that the lived life ahead will annotated with that dread expression of our time, "been there, done that"?&'9;
Youth is not the metaphor for desert hefker; I believe the metaphor we are after is courage, a passion of the heart for truth. Desert hekfer is not the accident of a disordered life, an ill-disciplined life or, as poet Wallace Stevens might put in, a "violent order." A disordered life is usually the result of an inner, unseen ordering that does not know who we are and what we are working with. We live clumsily because some inner map we have is untrue; it does not describe this person and this life. We live badly because we lie to ourselves.
Desert hefker is not an accident of the disordered life; it is spiritual achievement and goal. It is the consciousness of a person whose outer life is structured, like the Israelites in their arrays around the Mishkan. This outer structure allows us moments of quiet and focus where a holy, internal opening can be made. The disordered life usually cannot discipline itself to that quiet moment when the mind knows nothing and the heart seeks instruction.
The great Chasidic book Sefat Emet teaches: "The Torah was given in the desert so that the Holy One could emanate the light of Torah even into the Tohu" -- the great empty. The light of Torah can shine into us only when we can create a space for it. Divine wisdom can own us only in a moment when we stop owning ourselves. Perhaps the lives of order that we seek -- wise love, meaningfulness, productive work -- can only be achieved if we create a spiritual node within us of great disorder, a place within that yearns for and seeks God's wisdom, love and guidance.
Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah and the provost of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.