Parshas Bamidbar Speaking" Of The "DesertBy Rabbi Pinchas Winston
G-d told Moshe in the desert (bamidbar) of Sinai (Bamidbar 1:1)
One of the all-time classic questions has been: Why give Torah in the
desert? Aside from all the meanings accorded to Mt. Sinai, and all the
lessons we can learn from the fact that G-d came down over this "humble"
mountain and gave His Torah here, still, a holy Torah ought to be given in
a holy land. Would it not have been far more significant to give Torah on
the Temple Mount, the place where Ya'akov rested his head and had the
vision of the ladder Š the place he said was directly under the Gates of
Apparently not, for that is not what G-d did.
The explanation is discussed in the following Talmudic passage:
The princes dug the well, the nobles of the people hollowed it, by the
law-giver, with their staffs. From the desert [they went] to Mattanah; from
Mattanah to Nachliel; from Nachliel to Bamos. (Bamidbar 21:18-19) Š Why
does it say, "From the desert they went to Mattanah"? If a man makes
himself like a desert, abandoning himself to all (Rashi: he teaches Torah
to everyone free-of-charge), then Torah will be given to him as a gift
(mattanah), as it says, "From the desert to Mattanah." Since it is given to
him as a gift, he will inherit it from G-d (nachalo E"l), as it says, "from
Mattanah to Nachliel." Since he inherited it from G-d, he will become
elevated to greatness, as it says, "from Nachliel to Bamos (elevated
places)." (Nedarim 55a)
In other words, as glorious a moment as the giving of Torah was, it was by
no means the end of a process, but, in fact, the very beginning of it. To
enter the world of Torah, and to remain within it, one has to be humble and
grateful. He has to look at himself as a messenger from G-d, a spiritual
conduit through which the concepts of Torah can flow into This World. The
appreciation of the merit of being able to act in this role has to
overwhelm one's pride in being in this position.
(I know one public lecturer who claims, to this day, not to be a natural
public speaker, in spite of his students' comments to the contrary. He says
that, when he first begins to speak, he has difficulty even getting the
words out. However, once his mind connects with a Torah idea, all of a
sudden, he is overtaken by it, and becomes enthusiastic as he teaches.
However, on the few occasions he has pat himself on the back for any
success he has enjoyed, the words "all of a sudden" did not flow so freely.)
This is, perhaps, the reason why man, who sits at the top of the spiritual
ecological chain, is referred to as a "medabehr," which means "speaker."
The mineral world plays little active role in bringing the world to
completion, and neither does the vegetation world. Even the animal kingdom
lacks free-will and the ability to be a "willing" partner in creation. Only
man, endowed with the power of speech, a function of his high-level soul,
can accept or reject his Divine mission.
As a result, it is also possible for man to either give credit to G-d for
his role and successes, or, to take the credit for himself. He can either
treat himself like a "mountain," or, he can play the role of the "midbar,"
the desert (the same letters as the word medabehr -- mem, dalet, bais,
raish). This is his initial and most important choice that will determine
whether or not G-d will give him the gift of Torah.
However, gifts can come and go; inheritances last forever. If a medabehr
remains so, and, at the same, a midbar, then he will merit Torah as an
inheritance, and Torah will "flow" ("nachal" is a stream) from Above
through him forever. And THIS will be the source of his elevation to new
heights, spiritually, and in the eyes of others. But, most important of
all, it is THIS that brings rectification to the world, and ultimately, the
G-d told Moshe in the desert (bamidbar) of Sinai, in the Appointed Tent, on
the first day of the second month, in the second year after leaving Egypt,
"Take a census of the entire congregation of the children of Israel,
according to the paternal lines of their families, with the number of their
names, one beka per individual male." (Bamidbar 1:1-2)
Sefer Bamidbar represents far more than just a return to the narrative of
the Torah, and the stories that follow. It is, in fact (or, at least, was
meant to be), a spiritual conduit through which to benefit from the light
of Eretz Yisroel. This is one of the reasons why Vayikra, the "Book of
Holiness," ends off in Parashas BeHar with the mitzvah of Sh'mittah, and a
reference to Har Sinai. The Torah is saying: All that you came to Mt. Sinai
for and have received here is for the sake of bringing you to Eretz
Yisroel, the only place in the world that a Jew can achieve shlaimus --
This is the reason why rejection of Eretz Yisroel, first by the spies in
Parashas Shlach, and later by their descendants (the tribes of Gad, Reuven,
and Menashe) in Parashas Mattos is viewed as a rejection of G-d.
Satisfaction with one's present state of spiritual growth, no matter how
wonderful it may be, when additional spiritual growth is possible, is
viewed by Heaven as a rejection of additional closeness to G-d. Eretz
Yisroel represents that final link in a Jew's relationship to G-d, as the
Talmud makes clear in many places.
Thus, rather than looking for reasons why one need not live in Eretz
Yisroel, especially at a time when it is possible to do so, one ought to
look for reasons why one SHOULD live there, and be pained by the lack of
actualization of this fact. This is what the Chazon Ish told one yeshivah
bochur who was about to leave Eretz Yisroel without a second thought:
"We are trying to devise methods to get b'nei Torah to settle here, and you
are involved in finding ways to be able to leave?!" (Pe'er HaDor, Vol. II,
The fact that the Talmud groups Torah, Eretz Yisroel, and the World to Come
in one category (Brochos 5a) shows how integral a part the Holy Land -- at
any time -- plays in a Jew's victory over his yetzer hara.
Sefer Bamidbar represents the Jew's struggle to accept Eretz Yisroel as he
does his own soul and purpose in creation. Whether we are talking about
before the spies, or after the spies, the entire book is about going to
Eretz Yisroel. And, in each parshah, there is a hint as to what it takes to
be one with the idea of becoming one with the land of which Rashi writes
about in reference to the very first posuk of the Torah, back at the time
of creation of everything.
The parshah begins with a mitzvah to count the Jewish people. Rashi
explains that one of the main objectives in counting the nation at the
command of G-d was to convey to the Jewish people, then and throughout
history, how dear the Jewish people are to the A'lmighty. However, we also
know from Parashas Ki Sisa, where the process of counting the nation is
first described, that the counting served to increase unity among the
people. This is why everyone, rich and poor alike, had to give a one-half
shekel, indicating that completion of the individual depends upon
connecting up with other Jews.
As well, the word used for counting ("sisa"), as the Talmud points out, can
have different meanings, one of which means to "lift up. Thus the counting
of the nation was to have the effect of spiritually elevating the sights of
the Jewish people, that is, to replenish their inspiration, to stimulate
enthusiasm, and to encourage idealism.
Thus, right here and from the beginning, we have three ESSENTIAL
ingredients for connecting Jews to their land, which, seemingly, is not the
most natural thing in the world. (In fact, it is troubling how many Arabs
are literally dying to take over ALL of Eretz Yisroel, and how many Jews
are doing all they can to leave Israel or to not live there at all!)
But that would make sense, for, as much as Eretz Yisroel is called a "gift"
(Brochos 5a), so, too are Torah and the World-to-Come called "gifts" --
and, are they easy to pursue and attain? No, like all mitzvos, it is an
issue of, "According to the effort is the reward" (Pirkei Avos 5:22). In
other words, Eretz Yisroel is not merely a place to move and live; it is a
TEST. Hence, like in the case of all tests from the Torah, one has to work
on oneself, to get to the spiritual level where one loves the land and
desires to live there as a matter of choice.
That means overcoming certain physical, but mostly psychological obstacles.
"Why do I have to live THERE?!" some Jews complain.
Because, this week's parshah emphasizes, G-d loves you, which means that
wanting to live in Eretz Yisroel is a way to experience that love, and to
show appreciation for it. If Eretz Yisroel is a function of G-d's care and
concern for the Jewish people, then it must be good for us. Success
anywhere else in the world is less a function of G-d's love than it is a
matter of "nature" or historical cause. (It may bring gratification in the
short-run, but not too much in the long-run. This is why there is ALWAYS
more DIRECT Divine Providence for the Jewish who lives in Eretz Yisroel
than outside the land.
Desire to live in Israel also seems to be very much tied to Jewish unity.
Just like people with a common cause and desire to work together seek out a
central location as a "base," so, too, does a unified nation naturally seek
out a common homeland. And not one just to speak about and support from the
distance, but one upon which to live and build up with pride.
And, thirdly, Eretz Yisroel requires the Jew to be somewhat of a religious
idealist, someone who can be both self-inspired and be willing to be
inspired. Golus (exile) has taken the spiritual wind out of our spiritual
sails, and materialism has replaced it with its own hot air. Interestingly
enough, and this is very telling, very few Jews today cite the Arab
security problem as a hindrance to living in Eretz Yisroel. Instead, most
of the emphasis is placed upon Israel's seeming inability to deliver all
the comforts of a Western lifestyle, at least for the same cost it can be
achieved elsewhere in the Western world.
As we shall, this is NOT what G-d had in mind for His people. However, as
we shall see, b"H, it is what He knew His people would do.
G-d told Moshe and Aharon, "Do not cause the Kehatim to become extinct
amongst the Levi'im. So that they should survive and not die when they
approach the holiest things, Aharon and his sons must go in first and
arrange each thing, so that every [Kehati] can perform his service by
carrying his load. They must not come and see the holy things as they are
being covered, so they will not die." (Bamidbar 4:17-20)
Being a Levi, and specifically of the Kehati-type, was risky work. Their
job of transporting the holiest parts of the Mishkan carried with it a
certain occupational hazard. And, even though the kohanim, who had also
once descended from the same tribe as the rest of the Levi'im, were allowed
to see those things and not suffer death, still the Kehatim could not.
It is not unlike the whole concept of "hekdesh," those things that belong
to Temple property, but particularly, those things which previously had
belonged to someone else. However, with a few words, such as, "I hereby
dedicate this to the Temple," even a simple bottle can become off limits to
its previous owner, and forbidden usage can result in the desecration of
However, has anything REALLY changed, because of a few words? It's the same
bottle, with the same ability to hold the same volume. Why should a few
words make such a difference?
The truth is, it is not what we think about something that changes its
spiritual reality, but, what G-d thinks about the thing. There are certain
"rules" that G-d has built into creation, and they determine the status of
something based upon how we relate to it, because that is beneficial to
G-d's world. And, it furthers the completion of G-d's master plan.
For example, there is the halachah of yevamos. If a man marries a woman,
has children, and then either divorces or pre-deceases his wife, his
brother cannot marry the sister-in-law; the Torah forbids it. However, if
the husband dies prior to having any children, then, not only CAN the
surviving brother marry his brother's ex-wife, but, it is a MITZVAH to do
so, called "yibum" (Devarim 25:5).
What changed that made the woman permissible to her brother-in-law? The
surviving brother? The nature of the widow? The lack of children from the
deceased brother? Is that logical? Would we have thought to arrange this on
our own, without the Torah's guidance? Unlikely.
However, Divine wisdom understands creation and its goals far better than
any man can. G-d can appreciate both the short-term and long term affects
of a single thought, word, or act, or a series of all of them. Even Moshe
Rabbeinu -- our teacher -- was made to understand this from G-d -- his
teacher -- as he watched, through prophecy, the future death of the great
Rebi Akiva (Menachos 29b).
That is why, in spite of the fact that we have such liberty to be
"partners" with G-d in creation and history, still, we have to bow our
minds to Divine wisdom. The human intellect is marvelous, and if computer
technology has done anything really remarkable, it is that it has brought
us inches closes to comprehending just how great the human brain and mind
However, in spite of the awesomeness of man's mind, still, it is completely
bound and limited in comparison to the "mind" of G-d. And therefore, it is
up to the G-d-fearing and human-perfecting individual to use Torah to
define his limits, in order to soar beyond them, with the help of G-d.
Always, with the help of G-d.
What does this have to do with our theme of yearning to live in Eretz Yisroel?
When it comes to talking with fellow Jews who admit to rejecting Eretz
Yisroel because of their own shortcomings, very little. Such people often
also admit to the need to work on that problem among the other ones G-d is
waiting, patiently, for them to fix up.
However, I am constantly amazed, in the course of discussion, at how many
people by-pass the Torah, the Mishnah, and, the Talmud, not to mention the
countless later rabbis, such as Rashi, (later) the Arizal, and, including,
the Gaon of Vilna, when forming the basis of their opinion to
whole-heartedly reject Eretz Yisroel. Not to mention the Shemonah Esrai,
during which, THEORETICALLY, we are supposed to be crying for our return to
Tzion -- a Torah-based country on the holy soil of Eretz Yisroel.
As the Gedolei Eretz Yisroel point out, you need b'nei Torah to move to
Eretz Yisroel to make that a reality. "Ahhhhh, but Moshiach will come and
do that!" one person quipped. "Ahhhhh, maybe Moshiach is waiting for US to
do THAT before he will even come!" the counter-argument follows, with
strong historical proof to back it up.
Everyone knows that there are opinions to the contrary, particularly over
the last 50 years, from certain groups among the Orthodox, regarding moving
to Eretz Yisroel while the country remains ruled by a secular government.
However, very few appreciate the true extent of those opinions, and even
fewer relate to those opinions within the context of the entire Talmudic,
and post-Talmudic period literature.
Times change, and halachah is often based upon the here-and-now, as well as
the past and future. However, what does Eretz Yisroel have in common with
Torah and the World-to-Come, that the Talmud places them all together in
The answer is, each is timeless, ABOVE the here-and-now. Each requires the
Jew to have self-honesty, to be properly pursued and respected. And, each
requires self-sacrifice by those who wish to achieve them, and those who do
pursue them, have to know that sometimes, and in some generations, often,
they require the sacrifice of the present for the sake of the future.
Not because we say so, but, because G-d says so.
G-d Who has remembered us will bless (Tehillim 115:12)
The second half of last week's tehillah is a separate paragraph in Hallel.
You wouldn't know it from Hallel itself, because the mood changes from one
half to the next half (this part being very upbeat), giving the impression
that they belong apart from one other.
As Sefer Vayikra finished off last week, at the conclusion of the curses
for ignoring G-d and Torah, we are reassured that G-d will remember His
covenant with Ya'akov, Yitzchak, and Avraham. In spite of all the Jewish
people have gone through, and are still going through, G-d will never
forget us, and will always assure that an element of the Jewish people
survive until the end of history, after which time (eventually), ALL Jews
will come back in the period of resurrection.
He will bless the House of Israel, He will bless the House of Aharon. He
will bless those who fear G-d, the small as well as the great Š (12 - 13)
Right now, during this period in history, not all Jews receive G-d's
blessing, at least not directly. For the greatest blessing G-d can send a
person is not financial wealth or even perfect health; it is the presence
of the Shechinah -- the Divine Presence -- that is the best blessing of
all. Certainly not too many Jews today can attest too feeling THAT on a
Even in the desert, where the Clouds of Glory hovered above the Jewish
people and encased them in miracle and holiness, it was possible for
spiritual stragglers to be rejected by the clouds and left vulnerable to
the elements, such as an attack from Amalek. How much more so in our time,
when the only clouds we know are the ones that bring intermittent weather,
However, in the End of Days, when G-d remembers us one last time, because,
from that point onward He will never have to "forget" us again, the Divine
Presence will descend to meet us as we ascend, and we will become close to
His Presence forever. Then ALL Jews living will be blessed by G-d, all of
house of Israel, small and big alike.
As for the heavens, the heavens are G-d's; but the earth He has given to
man Š (16)
And, even the earth, the Talmud reminds us, is not man's until he does that
which G-d requires of him, such as making blessings before partaking of and
enjoying His world (Brochos 35a). Secondly, He gave man the earth, not to
simply do as he pleases and strip it of all its good, abusing it for the
benefit of materialistic gain. As the Torah says, we are here to "guard and
work" the "garden," and by extension, the world to which we were expelled
after eating from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Heaven belongs to G-d, and it is perfect. However, the earth was given to
man in a perfectly imperfect state, in order to allow us to rectify it, and
build G-d's kingdom on earth as well. We are like the scouting crew, who,
have been sent ahead of the king to pave the way for His arrival, in
royalty as is befitting the King of Kings.
The dead cannot praise G-d, nor any who descend into silence. However, we
can bless G-d from this time and forever. Halleluy-ah! (17)
And, as we have said on so many occasions, praising G-d is the quickest way
to build the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. There are different ways to relate
to people, and, likewise, there are different levels on which to relate to
G-d. Unpraiseworthy people can be likeable, somewhat, but they will not
necessarily command our respect.
However, when we feel compelled to praise someone, not only do we like them
and desire relationship with them, but, we are willingly humbled by their
very being, which is why we feel compelled to praise them. We even will
driven toward them, desiring to be in their company in order to help them
and benefit from their goodness.
Of the many things dead people cannot do, praising G-d is one of them.
Therefore, someone who does not feel the desire to praise G-d, by
definition, can be considered dead somewhat, at least spiritually, for, the
ultimate level of the "medabehr" is praise of G-d. This is what the Torah
warns when it says:
I have set before you today, life and good, death and evil. I command you
today to love G-d, your G-d, to walk in His ways, and to keep His
commandments, His ordinances, and His judgments, so you may live and
thrive, and so G-d, your G-d can bless you in the land you will possess.
Hmmm. In the "land we will possess"? It seems that getting to Eretz
Yisroel, keeping Eretz Yisroel, and thriving in Eretz Yisroel, both
physically and spiritually, is a function of our choosing to live in the
Torah sense of the word, which, in the Tehillim sense of the word, means,
praising G-d. But then again, nothing inspires praise of G-d more than
living in Eretz Yisroel, feeling the Shechinah that resides there, and,
daily drawing spiritual nourishment from the Presence of G-d.
We may have received the Torah in the Sinai Desert, as we will recall this
Shavuos night. But, it is in Eretz Yisroel -- the Final Destination of the
Jewish people -- that the mitzvos really come alive, and elevate us ever
closer to The Holy One, Blessed is He.