The movie Sandlot is a wonderful film about a group of kids who play baseball together on a local field (a.k.a a sandlot). The main character of the movie, Smalls, just moved to the area and wants to fit in with the group, but has no idea how to play baseball. His step-dad, played by Denis Leary, tries to teach Smalls how to play. Leary throws the ball at him, and (somewhat hilariously), because Smalls has no idea what to do, the ball goes whizzing past his glove and right into his face, giving him a black eye.
This week we begin reading the book of Bamidbar. The book opens with the following verse (Num. 1:1), “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai/וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי.” The Rabbis ask, why was it necessary for these things to happen in the wilderness? They teach in a Midrash (Num. Rab. 1:7), “anyone that does not make themselves ownerless like the wilderness cannot acquire wisdom and Torah. Therefore it is said, ‘in the wilderness of Sinai.’” The Midrash teaches that there is something about the quality of the wilderness that allows for the ability to acquire Torah. What is it about being “ownerless” that enables this capacity?
The Sfas Emes* teaches (Bamidbar 5664) that on the Shabbat before Shavuot (this week!) we need to prepare to receive Torah. That is why Shabbat was given before Torah, so that it can serve as a preparation to receive the Torah**. This is why it is written (Ex. 16:30), “the people rested on the seventh day/ וַיִּשְׁבְּתוּ הָעָם בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִעִי,” immediately before the people of Israel travel to Sinai. The Sfas Emes explains that it is through the power of Shabbat that we were able to come together as one to Sinai. He teaches that the wilderness is about nullification. In the wilderness, one can get rid of everything and just focus on hearing the word of God. Luckily, we have a little taste of that opportunity every week on Shabbat, when we cease from all of our work and put it out of our minds.*** When we clean out our minds and hearts and join together, we are able to fully receive the Torah.
It is difficult to receive anything without first being prepared. Smalls could not catch the ball because he did not know how to receive it. And it we rush into Shavuot without preparation, we will not be able to properly receive the Torah. This Shabbat, let us begin our preparations. Rest. Put the mundane thoughts, conversations and activities on hold. Let's clear out some space in our lives so we can enter the wilderness together and come out on the other side shining with the rays of Torah on our faces.
*Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (15 April 1847 – 11 January 1905), also known by the title of his main work, the Sfas Emes (Yiddish) or Sefat Emet שפת אמת (Hebrew), was a Hasidic rabbi who succeeded his grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, as the Av beis din (head of the rabbinical court) and Rav of Góra Kalwaria, Poland (known in Yiddish as the town of Ger), and succeeded Rabbi Chanokh Heynekh HaKohen Levin of Aleksander as Rebbe of the Gerrer Hasidim.
**Shabbat first appears in Genesis, long before the revelation on Sinai.
*** This is also why that in Dayenu we receive shabbat before being brought to Mt. Sinai.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.