What does it mean that Torah comes to us - according to its own narrative - in the wilderness?
Ancient rabbinic tradition offers a variety of metaphorical interpretations for the setting.
The expansiveness, the ownerless nature of the desert, its openness to all, the way in which such a surrounding makes everyone alike aware of dependency and vulnerability, all these are possible figurative reasons for the wilderness to be the locus of revelation, the place of our receptivity to Torah.
And then, too, there is the lexical linkage whereby the Hebrew word for "desert" and the word for "speech" or "pronouncement" share a root, so that midbar, which means "wilderness" throughout the Bible, in the biblical Song of Songs can also mean "mouth." (Song 4:3)
Perhaps most of all, the wilderness recalls the "wild and waste," or, in another translation, the "confused chaos" that was the state of the cosmos, according to the very first verses of Genesis, just before the divine decree, "Let there be light!" (Genesis 1:1-2)
This week we begin reading from our Torah the book known in English as Numbers - which, in Hebrew, is named for its first distinctive word, the book of Bemidbar, the book of "In the Wilderness."
The classical compendium of early rabbinic commentary to this biblical book, Bemidbar Rabbah, begins with the following association of scriptures, by way of interpretive opening:
"'Then the Eternal One spoke unto Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai' (Numbers 1:1) - this is as it is written [in the Psalms, addressing God], 'Your justice is as soaring mountains, Your statutes as the great abyss.' (Psalm 36:7)"
This suggestive but mysterious linkage of verses in turn occasions a variety of interpretations. Perhaps, says Rabbi Meir, it alludes to the exalted righteous, who are just, as opposed to the lowly wicked, who are judged. Perhaps, says Hezekiah the son of Rabbi Hiyya, the connection of the verse from Numbers with the verse from Psalms indicates the heavenly and the abysmal fates, respectively, of those who are deemed just, on the one hand, and those who are judged culpable, on the other. Perhaps, says another interpretation, the association of these verses is meant to suggest that revelation should be understood in terms of the high majesty of divine righteousness as juxtaposed with the profound depth of divine law.
I would like to take up that last suggestion and bring it to a question that was posed to me recently by a former student, now a rabbi. She asked me about the meaning of a rabbinic dictum that says, "Since the destruction of the Temple, the Holy Blessed One has no abode in the world save the four cubits of halakha," where halakha means "law" - literally, "the way one walks" in a principled manner through the world. What space is meant exactly by this saying? Where and what kind of dwelling place is it? And why is law defined or bounded in this traditional figure of speech as a domain of specifically four forearm-lengths or 'cubits,' a place of four amot in Hebrew, by way of measurement?
To get at the sense of the idea, I suggested that my student consider the stern admonishment in the Mishnah - the very earliest code of rabbinic law, put together in the time just after the destruction of the Temple - which says that "one who speculates" on "that which is above, that which is below, that which was before, and that which will come after" had perhaps better "not have come into the world" to begin with. (Mishnah Hagigah 2:1)
If the Mishnah meant with those harsh words to exclude - as mortally dangerous - fanciful cosmology, thanatology, protology, and eschatology - which would be understandable, in view of the lofty and dashed apocalyptic and messianic hopes that characterized the period surrounding the devastation of Jerusalem - what space then did the Mishnah leave us, as the proper place for contemplation and corresponding action?
The answer is the here and now - the experience and apprehension of the present moment, and the endeavor of deciding how to live in it. That is "the four cubits of halakha." That is where we seek out the divine in our time.
Four cubits, or arm-lengths, in rabbinic terms, define what we today call "personal space," the territory occupied by a human being wherever she or he is. To "enter into the four cubits" of another person, in rabbinic law, means to associate socially with that person or to invade that person's space; four cubits are the distance one must accompany a guest departing one's home, so as to have shown complete hospitality; and, in the laws of the Sabbath, for example, four forearm-lengths are the measure that determine whether an object has entered or exited a domain defined by one's own body.
Metaphysically, and as a matter of making our way in the world, we live between lofty ideals, on the one hand, and an infinitely receding horizon of jurisprudence, on the other - between "soaring mountains" and a "great abyss," to borrow figurative language from the 36th Psalm. The effort to do right and to create a just society is a never-ending project, just as the endeavor of discerning, fathoming, interpreting, and enacting the principles we inherit and transmit, in each and every age and generation, is never-ending.
In between is the wilderness in which we live, the four cubits, so to speak, of our limited lifespan. This is the space in which we are blessed with the ability to contemplate, and where we are endowed with the capacity to shape things. The project of Torah - of straining to hear revelation and striving to comport oneself accordingly - is the ever-ongoing effort to make this wilderness a sane and safe place.
To be truthful - and truly to take stock of the classical rabbinic legacy, and of human nature - we have never given up speculating far beyond ourselves, as a people and as a species. Nor do I think we can or should forsake that tendency. Such is wilderness life, the contemplating of vast vistas.
Yet even as we wonder at the unfathomable heights and depths surrounding us, we must not give up on the space defined by our own selves and lives as the domain in which we can discover and make manifest the divine.