Dessert, Desert, and Deserters
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
Every year, this week's parsha, BaMidbar, falls in advance of the holiday of Shavuos (the holiday that we have dessert before
the meal, that is, cheesecake in advance of the main course), that celebrates the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai, 3,309 years ago.
On the surface, the connection may not be obvious, since the parsha concerns itself primarily with the counting of the tribes
(again), and the arrangement of the camp during the forty years in the desert. However, the following dictum of the rabbis
brings the connection into sharper focus:
A person should make himself into a desert (midbar) ... (Eiruvin 54a)
The Talmud explains this to mean that a person must be humble and open to sharing his Torah. For, the desert is an ownerless
environment, and everyone tramples through it. This is a sign of humility. Elsewhere, the Torah warns that Torah cannot be
received by someone who thinks too highly of himself. This is one of the reasons why the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai, one of
the lower mountains, to emphasize the need for humility to become a vessel capable of "holding" Torah.
However, the word "midbar" shares the same letters as the word "medabehr," which means "speaker." We've already
mentioned how Pesach is the holiday that "frees" the mouth by freeing the intellect (Peh-sach: the mouth that spoke),
so-to-speak. Speech represents the spiritual and physical junction of soul and body. Shavuos is the holiday that connects up
the mouth with the mind, and there is no greater example of this than when the Jewish people answered G-d, "We will do and
we will understand" (Shemos 24:7), upon receiving the Ten Commandments.
This may sound strange, especially living in a society that has made statements such as, "Talk is cheap." We learn from the
Torah that the principle distinguishing feature of man over animals is his capacity of speech. It is speech that indicates one's
level of intellectualness spirituality. If "talk is cheap" to a person, then so is the soul within him, since it is the soul that makes
To become a "medabehr" is to become an intellectual to the best of one's abilities. It is to become a truth-seeker at the cost of
all else. This is why the Afikomen is the last thing we eat on Seder night, and why children are taught to "seek" it out for
reward. The Afikomen symbolizes the essence of the Pesach Offering, which embodies the idea of intellectual freedom. This
must be pursued with all one's vigor, and you should know that at the end of the pursuit the reward will beyond all present
comprehension. This is what the rabbis have said:
The Tablets were engraved (charus) by G-d and the writing was the writing of G-d. Don't read charus
(engraved), but cheirus (freedom), for there is no one freer than one who studies the Torah. (Pirke Avos, 6:2)
The parsha also focuses on the arrangement of the twelve tribes around the Holy Ark in the desert throughout the forty years.
Why is this so important to know? Because, as we learn from the second verse of the Torah ("The earth was null and void,
etc....), the natural state of creation is not order, but chaos. That was the warning from last week's parsha, which spoke
about the curses for disobedience.
The Torah was telling us that the maintenance of order in the universe is not a natural phenomenon, but the result of an act of
will, a continuos act of will. And if the will to maintain order disappears, so too does the order with it, until finally chaos
rules the universe; history is full of such black periods of time, with the Jewish people usually bearing the brunt of such cruel
times. The camp and its arrangement was meant to mirror the Torah's version of cosmic order, and to emphasize our
responsibility to maintain that order.
Also in this parsha is the reference to the tribe of Levi replacing the firstborn of each tribe, who, originally, were supposed to
have been the officiating priests in the Mishkan, and later in the Temples. They lost that right to the Leviim after the episode of
the golden calf, having participated in its construction, while the Leviim abstained.
There is the story told of a rabbi, who, upon embarking for America at the turn of the century, paid a visit to the venerable and
sagely Chofetz Chaim for a blessing. The Chofetz Chaim asked the rabbi, who had been a firstborn,
"Why aren't you a kohen?"
To which the man, astounded by the question and in a state of confusion, answered back,
"Because my father was not a kohen."
But the Chofetz Chaim pressed on, and asked,
"And why was your father not a kohen?"
At this point, the man having absolutely no clue what the Chofetz Chaim wanted from him, and being intimidated by the
question, answered the greatest rabbi of his time,
"Because his father wasn't a kohen?"
"No," the Chofetz Chaim told him. "The reason why you are not a kohen, is because, when Moshe came down the mountain
and asked, 'Who is for G-d! Come to Me!' only the tribe of Levi came! At that time, the firstborn lost their right to be
kohanim. You want a blessing? My blessing to you is that, the next time the call goes out, 'Who is for G-d?!' you should be
able to hear the call, and find it within yourself to respond accordingly!"
Every day, the rabbis say, a voice issues from Mt. Sinai and asks,
"Where are my people? Why have they forsaken the Torah that was given to them on me?"
It is just another version of, "Who is for G-d, come to me!" Every day of our lives, we are given opportunities to be proud of
being Jewish, of being unique, and of advancing the causes of Torah, and the question is, do we look at such opportunities and
take them seriously, or laugh at them? And though the "voice" may have dissipated to a faint echo, one can still hear it if he
listens carefully, if he listens past the "white-noise" of a somewhat carefree and G-d-less society.
But there is more to the story than this.
My Rosh HaYeshivah, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, shlita of Yeshivas Aish HaTorah (Jerusalem), used to ask us, "If the tribe of
Levi was so heroic, why did G-d want to destroy them as well?" After all, before Moshe came down the mountain and found
the golden calf in the camp below, G-d had spoken about wiping out everyone and beginning anew with Moshe alone. It
had only been Moshe's constant pleading for forty days on top of the mountain on behalf of the people down below, that,
seemingly, saved the tribe of Levi from extinction.
Rabbi Weinberg points out that, though the tribe of Levi heeded Moshe's call to avenge G-d against the calf-worshippers, one
could still ask the question, where were they before Moshe came down the mountain? Should they not have responded to
the situation then? Why did they wait for his leadership before making their move to correct what the obviously had
perceived as being deadly wrong?
Therefore, we can learn two very important messages from the Leviim, one by way of compliment, and one not so
complementary, inferred from an earlier parsha (Ki Sisa). The first message is:
When the call of morality goes out, and you perceive wrong in action, act! Don't wait for someone else to
make the move, or else you may find it difficult later to do so when you have to, once it becomes too late. That
can have dire consequences in This World, and the Next One.
The second message is:
Don't wait for someone else to lead the way. The leader may never come, and if he does come, it may be too
late. Don't try to be a leader when it is not necessary to be one, but, on the other hand, don't try to avoid the
responsibility of being a leader when you see the position vacant.
As Mordechai told Esther in Megillos Esther, "Who knows, maybe it was just for this that G-d arranged for you to be in your
position?" It takes a crisis sometimes to show us just who we are, what we are capable of achieving, and just what G-d
expects from us in life. This is the true source of humility, and what makes us fitting to receive G-d's Torah.