And from the wilderness to mattanah
,Among the reasons suggested for the Torah being given in the wilderness is one found in the Midrash Tanchuma (Hukkat 2
1): "Why was the Torah given in the wilderness? Because were it to have been given in the land [of Israel], that tribe within whose area it was given would claim primacy, saying, "We should be the first [to read from the Torah scroll]". Therefore was it given in the wilderness, so that all have equal rights to the Torah."
The Talmud (Eruvin 54a) offers a different derasha, one which relates to the humility required of one who studies the Talmud. "And from the wilderness to Mattanah" - if one allows himself to be treated as a wilderness on which everyone treads, his study will be retained by him, otherwise it will not". [Mattanah, name of a location, also means 'a gift'].
The Talmud follows this derasha with a story about Rava, son of R. Yosef bar
Hama who had come to pacify R. Yosef:
R. Yosef had a grievance against Rava son of R. Yosef B. Hama [and therefore they did not meet]. When the eve of the Day of Atonement approached the latter thought, 'I shall go and pacify him'. Proceeding to R. Yosef's house, he found his [R. Yosef's] attendant mixing a cup of wine for him. 'Give it to me', Rava said to him, 'and I will mix it'. He gave it to him and the latter duly mixed it. As R. Yosef [who was blind and could not see his guest) tasted it, he remarked: 'This mixing is like that of Rava son of R. Yosef b.
Hama'. 'I am here', Rava answered. 'Do not sit down upon your legs', said R. Josef said to him, 'before you have explained to me these verses. What is the purport of the Scriptural text: "And from the wilderness to Mattanah"? 'If', the other replied, 'a man allows himself to be treated as the wilderness upon which everybody treads, the Torah will be given to him as an inheritance...
It seems to me that through this story and the midrashim in the Talmud and the Tanhuma, the Sages are teaching us something about the qualification for receiving Torah, and also about the proper awareness required of the Torah student, he who desires to experience Mattan Torah - the giving of the Torah - in his life today.
The renewal of the relationship between Rava and R. Yosef was made possible through Rava's readiness to mix the wine for R. Yosef in place of the latter's attendant, and R. Yosef understood the hint. It could be that the literary choice of the mixing of the wine as a symbol of the reconciliation is related to the dream of the chief cupbearer who won reprieve from Pharaoh, but here R. Yosef wants Rava to make a clear statement: The Torah is given as an inheritance to one who is prepared to forgo his honor, to one who is willing to make concessions in order to come closer to the other. Rava's dershacontinues:
'And from Mattanah to Nahaliel', and as soon as he is the inheritance of God, he rises to greatness, since it says: 'And from Nahaliel to Bamoth'. But if he is haughty, the Holy One, blessed be He, humbles him, as it says: 'And from Bamoth to the valley'. If, however, he repents, the Holy One, blessed be He, raises him, as it says: 'Every valley shall be lifted up.'
Humility and concession enable receiving the Torah as a gift, but this Torah, given as a gift, also makes possible the experiencing of revelation. Unfortunately, one who is privileged to experience revelation is susceptible to psychological intoxication, becoming prideful of his status; distance is created between Man and the Holy One, blessed be He, and only Man's return to a state of open-mindedness and humility can facilitate reconciliation and communication.
This pendulum reminds us of another Talmudic tale (Bavli, Taanit 20a-b) concerning R. Shimon son of R. Elazar (or perhaps R. Elazar, son of R. Shimon):
Our Rabbis have taught: A man should always be gentle as the reed and never as rigid the cedar. Once R. Elazar son of R. Simeon was coming from Migdal Gedor, from the house of his teacher, and he was riding leisurely on his donkey by the riverside and was feeling happy and elated because he had studied much Torah.
There chanced to meet him an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, 'Peace upon you, Sir'. He, however, did not return the salutation but instead said to him, 'Raka [empty one], how ugly you are. Are all your fellow citizens as ugly as you are?' The man replied: 'I do not know, but go and tell the craftsman who made me, "How ugly is the vessel which you have made". When R. Elazar realized that he had done wrong he dismounted and prostrated himself before the man and said to him, 'I submit myself to you, forgive me'. The man replied: 'I will not forgive you until you go to the craftsman who made me and say to him, "How ugly is the vessel which you have made".' He [R. Elazar] walked behind him until he reached his native city. When his fellow citizens came out to meet him greeting him with the words, 'Peace be upon you O Teacher, O Master,' the man asked them, 'Whom are you addressing thus'? They replied, 'The man who is walking behind you.' Thereupon he exclaimed: 'If this man is a teacher, may there not be any more like him in
Israel'! The people then asked him: 'Why'? He replied: 'Such and such a thing has he done to me. They said to him: 'Nevertheless, forgive him, for he is a man greatly learned in the Torah.' The man replied: 'For you sakes I will forgive him, but only on the condition that he does not act in the same manner in the future.; Immediately R. Elazar son of R. Shimeon entered [the Beth Hamidrash] and expounded thus, A man should always be gentle as the reed and let him never be rigid as the cedar. And for this reason the reed merited that from it should be made a pen for the writing of Law, Tephillin and Mezuzoth.
R. Elazar son of R. Shimeon [variant reading - 'R. Shimeon son of R. Elazar'] achieved greatness because of Torah study, but this greatness does not immunize one against superciliousness, arrogance and belittlement of the other, and the other (the ugly man in our story) whom the Tosaphists - on the basis of a text in Tractate Derech Eretz - identify as Elijah, represents the word of God distancing itself from him because of his pride and his arrogance and his rudeness. Only the intervention of the residents of R. Elazar's town, who consider him a beloved and admired teacher, facilitates the forgiveness of the 'other'. As a result of this encounter, R. Elazar learnt and taught the lesson of humility; the Torah can be written only with 'a pen made of reed', i.e., with gentleness and with humbleness.
The author of Midrash Tanhuma adds another level: There can be no territorial, tribal or ethnic monopoly on the Torah. The Torah was given in a location belonging to all men, and therefore, as R. Meir taught (Bavli, Bava Kama 38a), no person or nation can claim ownership of the Torah:
From where do we learn than even a gentile who studies Torah is like a High Priest? Scripture teaches 'Which man shall and live in them' - it does not say Priests, Levites and Israelites, but man, thus you learn that even a gentile who studies Torah is like a High Priest.
Of course we cannot ignore midrashot which stress the unique connection existing between the Jewish people and the Torah, including the midrash which describes the nations' refusal to accept the Torah, but perhaps it is this unique connection in particular which obliges us to take seriously the mishna in Tractate Sanhedrin (4, 5):
For this reason was man created alone, to teach you that whosoever destroys a single soul of Israel, Scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world.4 furthermore, [he was created alone] for the sake of peace among men, that one might not say to his fellow, 'My father was greater than yours, and that the minim41 might not say, there are many ruling powers in heaven; again, to proclaim the greatness of the holy one, blessed be he: for if a man strikes many coins from one mould, they all resemble one another, but the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, fashioned every man in the stamp of the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single person is obliged to say: 'The world was created for my sake.'
Absolute inherent equality exists between human beings, because man was created singly, and we are all children of one man, and this principle demands of us humility and open-mindedness. It leads us through a wilderness journey to the recognition that the Torah which we received as an inheritance and which we can receive anew as a gift does not tolerate haughtiness or discrimination based on race, gender, ethnic community, class or nationality. May it be His wish that we merit also as a people in our land to receive the wilderness Torah of humility which respects every person created in the image ofGod.
Pinchas Leiser is the editor of Shabbat Shalom