Becoming Free Like the Wilderness

In my work on campus, I am blessed to build relationships with many different kinds of Jewish students. Some have extensive Jewish education and ritual practice. Some have one Jewish parent. Some have felt excluded due to race, socio-economic standing, sexual orientation or gender identity. Some never had a chance to learn about their Jewish heritage. Some are ambivalent.

This week’s parashah, Yitro, includes the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. The Midrash wonders why the Torah was given in the Sinai wilderness. It answers that the Torah was given through three things: fire, water and wilderness. Why? Because “just as these three are free to all inhabitants of the world, so too are the words of Torah free to them.”

I learned this text with a diverse group of student leaders recently. They taught me some things about fire, water and wilderness and how they are like Torah. Fire is available to everyone because everyone can create a fire themselves. Water is free to all because everyone, if they have the motivation, can go to the water.

And the wilderness? The Midrash teaches, “Anyone who does not make themselves free and ownerless like the wilderness cannot acquire the wisdom of the Torah.” The wilderness is an inner quality – an openness, an embrace of potential, of the innermost or highest self – that perhaps predicates the other two.

The mainstream Jewish community sometimes worries about the “unaffiliated,” those who are not practising, belonging or donating in familiar ways. But we can learn a lesson from this midrash about Sinai. All Jews receive Torah – that which they ignite themselves, that which they seek out and that which is contained within them. Other midrashim talk about how each person at Sinai heard God’s voice in their own way. The question is whether we can join together, all Jews, to hear each other’s Torah and thereby the fullness of the voice of God.

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

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