What's For Desert?
G-d told Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the Appointed Tent, on the first
day of the second month, in the second year after leaving Egypt . . .
As we prepare for another holiday of Shavuos, it is important to keep the
following in mind. What makes Kabbalos HaTorah meaningful, is the lack
that was a result from the breaking of the first set of Tablets (Lucos),
and having to live with a second, less holy set until Moshiach comes, and
may it be quickly in our time.
Deserts are not the most appealing places to live, unless you are a
scorpion, snake, or cactus. They seem to represent death, lacking so many
of the elements upon which human life depends, and so many of the comforts
human life prefers. And, for the most part, they are avoidable.
As to why deserts exist, it is just the way the world is. Some places are
fertile, while others are arid. Some places have lush vegetation, others
are barren wastelands. Each have their own kind of beauty, but few travel
agents are usually booked solid on excursions to sand dunes in the middle
of no man's land, which is one of the reasons why the desert was not so
appealing to the Jews fleeing Egyptian slavery.
However, from a Kabbalistic point of view, everything in the physical
world is really just a reflection of something in the spiritual world.
Every mountain, tree, and stream has its own angel, rooting for it in
Heaven, acting as its spiritual pipeline to provide the necessarily Divine
sustenance to survive. Thus, a desert is the way it is because of the
angel responsible for it, which just happens to be one of the deadliest
When they went into the desert to see, The Holy One, Blessed is He, took
the Light of Glory from there, and they went to look at it but could not
find it . . . Rebi Shimon said, "While they were still walking in the
desert (immediately after they came to the desert) another domain was
revealed to them, that of the rest of the nations. That is, he who has
control over the desert (the Sitra Achra) met up with them (to mislead and
draw them away through his trickery), and Israel saw that it was not the
Light of Glory of their King, as it says, 'They came to Marah and they
could not drink the water because it was bitter' (Shemos 15:23)"
(Beshallach 60a). Thus, even though the Clouds of Glory surrounded them
they could already begin to feel the treachery of the Sitra Achra, and
worried that the revelation of the light of Atika Kadisha would cease, as
they said, "Is Hashem amongst us or Ayin?" (Sha'arei Leshem, p. 113)
The Sitra Achra, arch-enemy of the Jewish people called the "Angel of
Eisav," who is the one responsible for obstructing our path to truth, and
to make us work harder to achieve it. Unfortunately, many people don't
know that, or fail to choose to overcome his trickery, and instead fall
prey to the spiritual challenge meant to help the person become stronger.
Moshe Rabbeinu knew quite well that this was to test them, and therefore
he led them into the desert, into the place of the Sitra Achra, as it says
in [the Zohar in] Parashas Tetzaveh (184a): It is the place of the Sitra
Achra, etc. [and they were brought there] in order to battle against his
trickery so as to break his power and strength, and to smash his head and
subjugate him, as we mentioned above in Section 3:5. (Ibid.)
Thus, the question remains, were we fleeing from Egypt, or running to the
domain of the Sitra Achra? We left Egypt to distance ourselves from the
depths of spiritual impurity, but it is the Sitra Achra who is responsible
for their existence, so what was to be gained by going into the desert?
To finish the job that we started, and should have finished back in Egypt.
If any man's wife go aside (sisteh). . . (Bamidbar 5:12)
What does it mean to break the power of the Sitra Achra? On the simplest
level, it means to not succumb to temptation. The Sitra Achra is not like
someone who can put a gun to a person's head and say, "Here! Eat from the
Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, or else!" While it seems as if that is
more than enough, the best he can do is to bring a person to a lower level
of understanding of reality that he will be willing, on his own, to make a
decision to put a gun to someone else's head and say something like, "Your
money or your life!"
If, as the Talmud states, "A person never sins unless a spirit of insanity
("ruach shtut," a play on the word "sisteh") enters him" (Sotah 3a), the
best the Sitra Achra can do is to lead us to such insanity. But, at the
end of the day, he will always be just taking advantage of our own
weaknesses, weaknesses that we could have reinforced, but chose not to.
After all, as the GR"A says, we're here in this world to break our bad
character traits to achieve perfection on whatever personal level we can
achieve it. Indeed, the whole point of a Divinely-sent personal test is to
reveal to US (and G-d already knows the results even before we take the
test), where we are spiritually weak.
Thus, if we find ourselves succumbing to temptation and actually
committing a sin, chances are, it was inevitable. It's like saying, if you
find yourself at five minutes before sundown on a Friday afternoon, yet to
cook for Shabbos or to clean your home, chances are, you'll have a messy
home for Shabbos, and very little cooked food to eat.
If you were to call your neighbor and say, "Quick! Can you help me? I had
a memory lapse, and until five minutes ago, I thought it was Thursday!
Now, Shabbos is almost here, and I have nothing to eat!"
If you have credibility with your neighbor, then he or she will feel bad
for you and show you mercy. However, if you are someone who is notorious
for putting off things until the last minute, and are always being caught
unprepared, your neighbor might just say, "Well, we'd love to help you
out, but, you know, when we started preparing for Shabbos OVER FIVE HOURS
AGO, we only prepared enough for our family . . . Maybe we can find
something in the freezer for you . . ."
What your neighbor will really be saying is, "Anyone who doesn't prepare
on Erev Shabbos, has nothing to eat on Shabbos itself!" (Avodah Zarah 3a).
To paraphrase for this essay, it means, "Anyone who does not prepare
himself in advance of a sin, cannot expect to avoid it at the moment of
"Well, the way I see it, the pipe's weak right about there," a cautious
technician says to his penny-pinching boss.
"It seems to be holding up just fine the way it is," the boss answers with
"Sure," the technician retorts, "for now. But one water surge, and BOOM!
You'll have water shooting out in every direction you can possibly
Slightly agitated, the boss says, "Yeah, but what are the odds of that
That's a loaded question. If we are talking about a world that is random,
as the boss would like to believe, then the chances are slim. If you look
back over the last 5700 years of history, and ask yourself, how many
things should not have happened, according to the odds, but did happen
instead, which sometimes resulted in unimaginable success, and other
times, in unmitigated disaster?
Personally, I have found, in just those areas that I have been lazy and
careless something always seems to happen to me that leaves me shaking my
head with regret, saying, "If only I had just . . ."
This is from G-d, that which is wondrous in our eyes. (Tehillim
And that which is not wondrous is random, G-d forbid?
The Hebrew word for random is "mikreh," spelled, Mem-Kuf-Raish-Heh.
However, the word is describing an effect rather than an actual reality,
because from a Torah standpoint, there is no such thing as randomness.
Indeed, a more accurate definition of mikreh is: the APPEARANCE that when
certain events occur, G-d is not involved in history where the results
look consistent with everyday, "natural" life.
However, there is no such thing as randomness, only Hester Panim-the
hiding of G-d's direct involvement in the affairs of man, something He
does to make free-will choice possible. If reality revealed G-d as it
should, it would be impossible to deny His existence and involvement in
every last aspect of physical and spiritual Creation.
And, since life is about Shviras HaMiddos, the breaking of bad character
traits, or to put it in the positive, character refinement, then G-d is
constantly watching us in order to help us achieve this goal. That is,
providing that we are open to learn lessons from the things that go right
and wrong in our lives.
So, for example, Heaven may decide that it is time for me to become a
little less wasteful when it comes to Torah study. Fortunately for me,
someone else has "gotten" the idea to offer a seminar on using time for
Torah study better, and just happens to place an advertisement in the
community magazine the one week I just happen to see it, and its catches
"Wow," I think to myself, "what Divine Providence."
So, I check out the details, and it turns out that it is a five-session
seminar that takes place exactly at the time of night that I enjoy coming
home and spacing out after a long, hard day of work and learning. "Hmm," I
say to myself, "that's tough." I can already feel my equilibrium going out
of balance as feel agitated by the potential need to change my schedule
with which I am COMFORTABLE.
"And look at that price!" I say to myself. "Four hundred shekels for the
entire seminar, non-refundable . . . I mean that's a lot of money to dish
out when I have other, more pressing bills to pay."
However, being a little experienced at this Hashgochah Pratis thing, I
wonder to myself, "Maybe this is a test. Maybe Heaven wants to see how
much I want to grow . . . and how much I'm willing to pay for it. Yes,
it's probably a set-up, and if I go the right way, everything will work
out like it usually does."
About to win my psychological battle, my yetzer hara pipes in, "But maybe
it's not a test . . . maybe you are just exaggerating the point and about
to give up, and foolishly I might add, your only real relaxation time,
and with the money you'll need to pay the bills next month. Hah!" he says
moving in for the kill, "you'll end up having to stop learning just to
earn the extra money you spent on how to increase learning!"
"He may have a point," I find myself saying. So, my yetzer tov, which is
just Divine Providence helping me out in the struggle in a somewhat
indirect way, adds its own two cents worth, "But if it is a test, then
you're about to fail it, and then you'll know what that means . . ."
Welcome to the desert, the home of the Sitra Achra, the playground of the
When they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters there, because
they were bitter. Therefore, it was called "Marah." (Shemos 15:23)
It says in the Zohar:
When Israel left Egypt and were 600,000 [males above the age of 20 years],
the Holy Malchus was strengthened and ascended, and the moon gave off
light. Then, the Evil Kingdom of the Sitra Achra was humbled, so The Holy
One, Blessed is He, took them out into the strong desert, which is the
place and dominion of S"M, the Evil One, in order to break his strength
and ability, to smash his head and humble him so that he would no longer
rule. Had Israel not sinned, The Holy One, Blessed is He, would have
wanted to remove him from the world; to this end, He brought them through
to be his inheritance and portion. However, since they sinned many times,
the snake bit them, thus fulfilling, "It shall bruise your head and you
shall bruise its heel" (Bereishis 3:15), because Israel hit his head
first, but since they did not know how to stay safe from him, he hit them
back after. As a result, they all fell in the desert, fulfilling "and you
shall bruise its heel," and the forty years that "hit" them corresponded
to the forty lashes administered by a Bais Din. Therefore it says that
they saw with their eyes the master of the desert walking humbly before
them, and that they took his inheritance and portion. How do we know
this? Because it says, "Then the chiefs of Eisav were frightened" (Shemos
15:15); they are the snake, the poisonous snake, and the scorpion, etc.
(Zohar, Tetzaveh 183b)
Commenting on this section from the Zohar, the Leshem explains:
All of this was because the Dor HaMidbar (the Generation of the Desert)
was not worthy from the outset, as it says, "when you were naked and bare"
(Yechezkel 16:22), as it is known. Thus, they were unable to completely
pass each test, which is what caused what is referred to as the "ten tests
with which our fathers tested The Holy One, Blessed is He" (Pirkei Avos
5:6). (Sha'arei Leshem, p. 343)
-showing us the crucial importance of being ready for a test . . . IN
ADVANCE! Being worthy means first learning how to practice First Aid in
the quiet and controlled environment of an organized class on the topic,
not when someone is lying there, G-d forbid, in need of help.
Otherwise, as we move on through life, we remain vulnerable to the
pitfalls of all the places we may pass along our way. To avoid dealing
with our spiritual vulnerabilities is like going into the desert with only
a canteen of water. The desert of the Sitra Achra is anywhere and
everywhere we are spiritually weak, and therefore it can even be in places
that we might have thought we were protected, how much more so in the
places that we know we are not!
Thus, the Leshem continues:
It was the location that caused each test, which was the desert, the place
of the S"M-the place of power of the Chitzonim. This is what caused them
to stumble, as the Zohar says (Shlach 60a). Thus it says, "Therefore, they
called its name Marah (Bitter) . . ." (Shemos 15:23), and another place
they called Massah u'Merivah (Test and Contention) (Shemos 17:7).
Likewise, in Parashas BeHa'alosechah, they called a place Tavairah
(Bamidbar 11:3), and Kivras HaTa'avah (Bamidbar 11:34), because in each
case it was the place itself that was the cause of what happened there;
see Sanhedrin 102a and 106a. (Ibid.)
In a sense, the journey from Egypt is a parable for the journey of every
single Jew as he or she leaves the womb and enters the world of everyday
life, a virtual desert filled with spiritual dangers and pitfalls. The
educational process, hopefully, provides us with our survival kit,
allowing us to pit ourselves against the elements in order to grow closer
However, G-d has led us there, and controls the desert as well. For that
which we are prepared, we need only to do our thing to survive and grow.
For that which we did not and could not have prepared for, we are
protected by G-d Himself against the elements with the "Clouds of Glory."
For that which we could have prepared ourselves against, but through
negligence, did not, we have endangered ourselves.
In that case, the only test we can face at that time is in our willingness
to admit our shortcoming, to turn to Heaven and beg for mercy. Fortunately
for us, G-d would rather see us come back to Him, even at the very last
second, rather than to lose us altogether.
Have a great Shabbos,
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.