The book of Bamidbar (In the Wilderness) is so named because it focuses in
detail on the Jewish people's 40-year sojourn in the wilderness. But the
commentaries offer a deeper reason. They note that the wilderness represents
a vital characteristic that a Jew is asked to internalize in his character.
That is the dominant feature of the wilderness as an ownerless no-man's land.
In order to absorb Hashem's teachings and to connect to the Torah, one must
turn himself into a "wilderness," in the sense of minimizing the natural
human tendency toward wanting ownership and control. The self-aggrandizing
"I" blocks us from accepting the authority of Heaven. We must internalize
the trait of humility, symbolized by the wilderness where the Jewish people
received the Torah, and in whose bleak and barren environment they lived for
Why is the trait of humility so critical to the absorption of Torah
knowledge and connecting to our Divine source? Isn't assertiveness an
important tool enabling us to climb the ladder of success, and assist us in
making our mark in society? Doesn't striving for humility invite others to
exploit our weakness and highlight our own lack of self-confidence?
Insight into this question can be found in the perspective of the great
sage, Rabbi Yehuda the Nasi ("Rebbi"), who codified the Mishna. The Talmud
quotes this spiritual giant as stating, "The reason I surpassed my friends
in Torah knowledge was that I saw my teacher Rebbi Meir from the back!" What
message lies in those cryptic words, "from the back? Perhaps we can
understand that phrase as signifying that due to his self-subordination and
humility, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was capable of receiving from his spiritual
mentor much more than were his contemporaries. He realized that Rebbi Meir
was so exalted he was in a league of his own. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi felt he
was capable of seeing only "the back of his teachings."
What Rebbi grasped was that everything that he heard from Rebbi Meir was in
a sense peripheral, "from behind." When we see something from up front, we
believe we have grasped the matter in its entirety. When we see something
from behind, we have the outline but are left to connect the dots on our
own. Rebbi understood that his teacher, who harked from an earlier
generation, was on an entirely different plane of Torah depth and spiritual
greatness. It was this trait of humility that illuminated for him the
difference between what he knew and what he still had to learn. This enabled
him to master areas unchartered by his contemporaries, which catapulted him
to a leadership position. During his tenure, he presided over the
codification of the Mishna, bequeathing an eternal legacy to all future
A promising scholar and writer who lived in Jerusalem once described how he
first entered a class of budding Kabbalists who were studying with a great
mystic in the old city of Jerusalem. He was excited at the privilege of
being among this group and looked forward to the challenge of plumbing the
depths of the great Kabbalistic writings under the tutelage of this
acclaimed instructor. When he first entered the room, the sage beckoned him
forward. The elderly man took an apple from his drawer and handed it to him.
The student accepted the apple with his right hand, nodding his appreciation
towards the sage but perplexed about the meaning of this strange
interaction. The sage then withdrew the apple and returned it to his drawer.
He silently repeated the transaction. Once again, the student accepted the
apple appreciatively, in the same manner as before. Once more, the sage took
Then, with a warm smile, the sage demonstrated the manner in which the
student should accept the token gift. He cupped his hands together,
indicated that the student should follow suit. The sage then dropped the
apple into the young scholar's cupped hands. "That is how we are to study
the Kabbalah," he explained. "The word Kabbalah means 'to receive.' We must
make ourselves a receptacle, realizing we have nothing to give or to add,
and that our minds are simply vessels prepared to receive and absorb." Only
then, he explained, can we break the limitations of our finite minds. Only
then can we transcend the barriers that obstruct us from plugging into the
Divine source of infinite wisdom!
In today's society, the emphasis is on constantly and artificially pumping
up the human ego. We are taught to demand our rights and that we are
entitled to what we want. We are led to believe we deserve life's blessings,
and when things don't go right, we feel shortchanged, bitter and frustrated.
These responses are not the pathway to gaining spiritual wisdom. On the
contrary, the more we give expression to our ego and narcissistic
tendencies, the less we are capable of grasping the broader picture and our
place within that framework. Only by demonstrating humility and following
the example of "the wilderness" will we be able to absorb the wisdom of the
spiritual giants of yesteryear. Only then can we gain from their supreme
understanding of Torah and how to connect to the One Above.