Civilization in the Wilderness

  • Harav Yehuda Amital
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion





Civilization in the Wilderness


Adapted by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish



Our portion begins, "God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai" (Bamidbar 1:1), stressing that the Torah was given in the wilderness.  The Maharal explains that this is meant to signify a place of desolation, a place with no water and no life, a place with no inhabitants.  Yet it is specifically here that Benei Yisrael encamp, by their tribes and their banners, with the Tent of Meeting at the center of the camp, creating an ideal civilization in the midst of the wasteland. 


If we were to think about where to establish a nation, we would probably think about somewhere central, teeming with life.  The Torah teaches us that true civilization is not to be found in such places: not in tall towers, not in all the fancy capitals of the world.  This is not the sort of nation that God wants to establish.  God establishes the ideal civilization in the wilderness; an empty page, as it were, neither committed nor connected to anything that has preceded it.


Here we must ask: what sort of nation (am) arises in this wilderness, disconnected from all that came before?  The Torah tells us that at Mara, the first stop after crossing the Sea of Reeds, God "placed a statute and a law for them, and there He tested them" (Shemot 15:25).  Our Sages (Sanhedrin 56b) explain that the first principles to which Am Yisrael commit themselves are the seven Noahide laws, the dinim (civil laws), and the law of the red heifer (Seder Olam Zuta 4).  I have explained in the past that the red heifer symbolizes the laws with a reason and meaning that we do not understand, while the dinim are the laws that we do understand.  Am Yisrael commit themselves to examples of both types, thereby demonstrating that they are ready to fulfill the commandments, whether they understand them or not.  However, the main laws that they take upon themselves at that point are the seven Noahide laws, the simple principles that would appear to obligate every human being.  When God establishes the nation, He first wants Am Yisra’el to commit themselves to being human, humane, good people; only after that foundation is laid can the rest of the commandments follow.


Thus, Am Yisrael are commanded, on the one hand, to fulfill the most elementary requirements which should be the basis of any proper, moral society.  On the other hand, they are commanded this with no connection to anything that has come before; they start off on a clean page, in the empty wilderness.  On the one hand, Am Yisrael, organized and arranged by God's direct command, is in constant conflict with the wilderness, representing absolute chaos; on the other hand, they are in constant conflict with the other nations of the world, who build their societies based on human priorities. 


Indeed, anyone who has visited Jerusalem and ascended Mount Scopus knows that Jerusalem borders the desert on one side.  Looking down the mountain, one sees a wasteland.  Jerusalem is engaged in an ongoing battle with the desert and what it symbolizes.  At the same time, it is the city of God, struggling against the messages that emanate towards it from the other cities of the world.  Jerusalem, eternal capital of Am Yisra'el, is thus at the center of a struggle from two directions – the wilderness, on one side, and the nations of the world, on the other.  We should all keep this symbolism in mind as we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim next week.


(This sicha was delivered on Leil Shabbat, Parashat Bamidbar 5765 [2005].)