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Is Sinai Mountain or Desert?

A wadi in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Photo: Florian Prischl via Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.orgSinai is a mountain, but it’s also a desert. This week, we begin reading Numbers in synagogues around the world. But in Hebrew, the fourth book of the Torah is better known as Bamidbar, which literally means “in the desert.”

Many commentators expound on the importance of the Torah being given to the Jewish people in a wilderness. They note that a desert is an uninhabited, barren wasteland. This reminds us that to receive the Torah and truly absorb its message requires us to feel a sense of emptiness and nothingness. We must be small and insignificant in our own eyes. Only then can we be fitting receptacles for the infinite wisdom of God. Otherwise, we might question, argue and even reject its divine laws and way of life.

The story is told of a king who built a new palace. To decorate the magnificent dining hall, he commissioned the four greatest artists of his country to paint murals that would adorn its four walls. The best work of art would bring the artist a handsome prize over and above their payment.

Three of these renowned artists got busy immediately. They were seen measuring, sketching, designing and calculating their future mural. But the fourth artist was nowhere to be seen. Where he was and what his mural would look like remained a mystery until the fateful day when the four murals were to be unveiled in the presence of his majesty the king.

One mural after another was revealed to the exultation and admiration of the adoring, inspired assemblage. And then the fourth artist came forward. Instead of unveiling his own original mural, he revealed a giant intricately designed three-dimensional mirror. It reflected all the beautiful artistry on the other three walls. The people were simply awestruck and completely blown away. It was not just stunning; it was breathtaking.

Needless to say, he won the prize.

Sometimes it’s necessary to stand back from one’s own talents and achievements and look around. What are others doing? Have a good, objective look. By internalizing and incorporating the creativity and talents of others we may emerge even more exquisite.

But to do this requires the humility to appreciate that someone else has talent too. I’m not against originality and creativity. I’m not suggesting plagiarism as a way of life. But, from time to time, we should allow ourselves the opportunity to look objectively at the work of others and see how it may influence us for the better.

I don’t remember how many times I’ve read or listened to interviews with successful artists, whether in literature or music, who were asked by the interviewer, “Who was the greatest influence on your work or style?” Every one of these brilliant artists answered honestly and unapologetically, sharing the name or names of artists of the previous generation who had a powerful influence on their own style. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary.

As a rabbi, I’m often surprised and taken aback at how everyone and their mother-in-law consider themselves experts in Judaism, and its philosophy and practice. People do, of course, seek out the wisdom and opinion of their rabbis when they experience doubts or dilemmas or have a difficult decision to make. This is as it should be. That’s what we’re here for. But then, I often see how the advice given to them by the rabbi is disregarded and not followed at all.

These same people consult doctors, lawyers and accountants, happily pay for their time and expertise, and follow their advice, swallowing their prescriptions faithfully. Is a rabbi less of a professional expert in his field? Somehow, when it comes to things Jewish, the same client decides that he knows better than the rabbi.

Is it, perhaps, because rabbis usually don’t charge for their services that they are less appreciated by their clientele?

All professionals, including rabbis, studied in their respective fields for several years and qualified for and received a degree. Why do people who don’t presume to be doctors, lawyers or accountants assume that when it comes to Jewish matters they can second-guess the rabbi? Is it ignorance or arrogance? Personally, I find it quite fascinating how every Jew thinks that when it comes to Judaism, he too is an expert authority.

When the sages suggested that the Torah was given in a wilderness to emphasize the need for humility in order for us to absorb its profundity, they clearly knew what they were talking about.

As we approach Shavuot, the Season of the Giving of the Torah, let us rethink our attitude towards respecting the Torah and appreciating its bona fide teachers. Then, not only will the Torah be given by God but it will be well-received by His people.

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