The Name
The name of the fourth book of the Torah and this week’s parsha is Bamidbar-“In the desert.” Our Sages (Yoma 68b) also refer to this book as the “Book of Numbers.”


The question has been raised why we chose the name Bamidbar when a dominant theme of this book is the census (Pikudim) of the Jewish people and not their sojourn in the desert?  Naming a Torah book is not an arbitrary exercise; the name must be expressive of the very content and character of the book.


A second question can be raised based on the premise that when two or more names are given to one thing, they must have a deep relationship to each other. What, then, is the connection between Bamidbar-In the Desert and Numbers?


Why was the Torah Given in a Desert?

To answer these questions we must focus our attention on the way the Jewish Torah reading calendar is set up. Without fail, we read Bamidbar immediately before the festival holiday of Shavuos, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai in the desert. (In some years—as is the case this year—an additional Parsha, Naso is also read before Shavuos.  Bamidbar, however, always precedes Shavuos.)
Our Sages of the Talmud and Midrash expound on the connection between the giving of the Torah and the desert in several ways:


First, just as the desert is ownerless so too Torah is available and accessible to everyone. No one person can claim exclusive rights to the Torah.


Second, just as the desert is a place in which no work is performed, so too one who dedicates himself to Torah is freed from all mundane affairs and exile conditions.


Third, if the Torah had been given after the arrival in Israel, people would have been preoccupied with their property and livelihood. Therefore G‑d gave the Torah in the desert, where all their needs were provided for, so they had ample time and resources to absorb the Torah.


Fourth, to be receptive to Torah one must render oneself hefker—free for all, i.e., egoless, like the desert.


Fire, Water and the Desert

In truth, the desert is only one of several metaphors used by our Sages to describe the giving of the Torah. The Torah was given on Mount Sinai, the lowest of all the mountains, to symbolize the value of humility. Why then is the primary prefatory Torah portion named Bamidbar, implying that the primary preparation for Torah is the concept of the desert?


Moreover, in another Midrash three elements are linked to the giving of the Torah: Fire, Water and the Desert.  Yet, only the desert is highlighted as a necessary prerequisite for the receiving of the Torah. Why not fire or water?
To answer this question we must understand how these three elements, fire, water and desert, relate to the giving of the Torah.


One approach is that fire, which rises above all else, is the symbol of arrogance. Water, conversely, by nature flows downward and thus alludes to the person who lowers himself to others—humility. The desert, as stated earlier, is also suggestive of the person who is devoid of ego. The question arises, what distinguishes the symbol of humility associated by water with the symbol of a checked ego represented by the desert? Why two distinct symbols for the trait of humility?


Healthy Humility

The answer is that humility is merely a description of behavior towards others. One could act humbly but not truly be humble. Also, humility is not a positive trait in all instances. For example, when resolve, courage, confidence and assertiveness are required to carry out a certain mission, some forms of humility can be counterproductive.


How do we maintain healthy humility and also be assertive when necessary? It is only possible with the “desert” mindset. As stated, the desert is the state of total self-abnegation, the Hebrew word for which is bittul. Bittul allows us to combine assertiveness and humility. We become totally receptive to the Divine teachings of the Torah when we are self-effacing. Once we receive G‑d’s Torah in its purest state and are devoid of personal agendas, our assertiveness (which may appear to some as arrogance and an inflated ego) is actually an expression of G‑d’s authority, not our own. The “desert” personality is simultaneously the most humble person and the most assertive and authoritative person because he is channeling G‑d’s authority.


Such was the humility of Moses, about whom it was said, “Moses was the most humble person on the face of the earth.” Yet Moses was also the most authoritative leader, whose words are a command to all of us. His assertiveness was not only consistent with his humility, it was actually a most formidable expression of it. Moses was simply a transparent conduit for G‑d’s word.  


This may answer the question as to why the Torah is associated primarily with the symbol and metaphor of the desert, rather than with the symbols of fire and water.


To Absorb the Infinite

Torah, by definition is beyond our grasp because it is Divine knowledge. Since G‑d is infinite so is His Torah. Our own minds are finite. It is impossible for a finite being to receive that which is infinite. The only way we can be receptive to Torah is by “removing” our personal identities and become open and empty vessels, ready to receive G‑d’s message.


Hence, the concept of the desert, which symbolizes Bittul, is the single most important ingredient in the process of receiving the Torah. The other elements of fire (assertiveness) and water (humility) are merely the consequences of our self-abnegation: by adopting a desert personality we can confidently assert ourselves while remaining humble in our relationship with others.


Superiority or Inferiority Complex: Sign of an Inflated Ego

To explain:


Assertiveness, in and of itself, may signify an exaggerated sense of self-importance, unjustified confidence, mistaken trust in one’s own abilities and the correctness of one’s own ideas. A fiery and passionate leader may be the ultimate egotist. If so, he cannot be trusted to impart the Torah’s unadulterated teachings to others.


However, even if a person appears to act like water, by showing submission to others or exhibiting signs of meekness, it may actually be due to a lack of conviction and insecurity rather than to a humble spirit. Moreover, ironically, this humility may even come from an inflated ego. The meek individual may simply be afraid to show conviction and fortitude lest he be proven wrong and subjected to ego bruising ridicule.


Both the “fire” and “water” approaches may actually be products of an inflated ego, which will make it impossible to be receptive to the Divine teachings of Torah.


In addition, those who suffer from a superiority complex, or those who are overly humble because of the insecurity that accompanies an inferiority complex (both of which are signs of an inflated focus on self) are hardly qualified to impart knowledge to others. Their arrogance and/or insecurity cloud their teachings, driving a wedge between them and their students.


Hence the Torah highlights the “desert” ideal in the week before the festival of Shavuos.  This reinforces the notion that the desert personality, which can successfully navigate between assertiveness and humility, is the only one truly receptive to Torah.


The Paradox of Counting

We can now also return to the original question of why Bamidbar was chosen as the name for this Book and Parsha.


Let us recall that the other name of this book is “Numbers” because of the census chronicled in this week’s parsha. The significance of this counting underscores the value of each and every member of the Jewish community.
Our Sages tell us that if even one Jew were missing, G‑d would not have given the Torah.  Just as we could not get the Torah without the “desert-bittul” imperative, so too we could not receive the Torah without each and every Jew present and accounted for.


Superficially, these two requirements appear mutually exclusive. If we are in a state of total self-abnegation how can we be counted?


Upon deeper reflection, the process of counting, in and of itself, was the instrument by which our true G‑dly identities were revealed to us. Counting individuals can have two contradictory effects. On the one hand, it establishes that you count and are important. In Jewish law, items that are counted cannot be nullified in larger mixtures. On the other hand, when we count individuals, no one counts more or less than the other. That is the ultimate expression of bittul-self abnegation.


Thus, when G‑d counted the Jewish people He was revealing their true G‑dly identity and importance; this is the true state of nullity relative to which all Jews are equal and united as one.


Naming this book and parsha Bamidbar-In the Desert thus describes that which was accomplished by the counting. The process of counting was parallel to the desert-bittul dynamic and was the instrument by which this dynamic was unleashed.


“Humble Ones: The Time of Your Redemption has Arrived”

The Midrash states that Moshiach will stand on the roof of the Bais Hamikdash and declare: “Humble ones, the time of your Redemption has arrived.”


Why does he hail the people as “humble ones?” Because Moshiach, like Moses whose soul resides in him, is the catalyst that enables us to realize our greatest potential.  This makes us worthy and able to receive the G‑dly revelations that accompany the Messianic Age. By being humble, in the “Bamidbar-desert” sense of the word, and receptive to Moshiach and the Messianic Age, one makes the transition from Exile to Redemption happen in the most efficient and pleasant way.
Moshiach Matters


In the time to come it will be apparent in every entity that it is the handiwork of G‑d's creation. People will be able to perceive how the true nucleus of each particular entity, with its distinctive features and characteristics, is the Word of G‑d — that is — the particular Divine Utterance which suffuses it with vitality and grants it life.


(Likutei Sichot, 29)