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Where and How to Receive

by Rabbi Debra Orenstein

The Book of Numbers begins: “Adonai spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai.” The Rabbis derived from this wording that wilderness was the required setting for receiving Torah. They elaborate: “Anyone who does not make himself like an ownerless wilderness cannot acquire wisdom and Torah” (Bemidbar Rabbah 1:7).

Wilderness – like water and fire, two other elements associated with the revelation at Sinai– is free. “Just as these are free to everyone in the world,” the Rabbis explain, “so are the words of Torah free…”

In our society, “free” is often associated with “cheap.” In this midrash, “free” indicates “open” and “accessible.” Precisely because it is ownerless and available to everyone, Torah – like the Wilderness – is priceless. If we can open ourselves to God and the world in that same spirit of humility, then – and only then – we make room to receive wisdom and Torah.


This teaching holds special meaning for me this year, as I find myself in uncharted, open land. After 18 years in Los Angeles, I am moving with my family to New Jersey. We are saying goodbye to a community and friends we love, and we are headed with excitement to the state where I was raised, where my parents still live, and where, beginning in July, I will serve a warm and progressive Conservative synagogue: Congregation Bnai Israel ( I am leaving one synagogue community, and haven’t yet joined another. We have sold our house… and haven’t bought a new one. My home is no longer my own, and I myself feel a bit “hefker” – ownerless, unclaimed, disorderly.


Although this “wilderness condition” is obviously uncomfortable, I know that it is also temporary. Soon, I will be ensconced in a new physical and spiritual home. In the meantime, I intend to make the most of the uncertain, open terrain in which I find myself. In this environment, I am thrown open. Therefore, I pray, as Shavuot approaches, to be as expansive and free as the Sinai desert. No matter how rooted or uprooted you may be in these tumultuous times, my prayer for you is that you always remain wild.

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