Like a Desert
God told Moshe in the desert 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 …”
With Parashas Bamidbar upon us, it means
Shavuos is just around the corner, b”H.
And, though it seems as if the order of the
reading of the Torah portions has little to
do with the time of year (which is why we
often change it for the holidays), in truth,
everything is Hashgochah Pratis, and every
intertwining of events has its particular
However, in this case, it is not hard to
make the connection between the parshah
and the time of year, since the Talmud
One who makes himself into a desert, which everyone tramples, his Torah
will remain in his hand — talmudo miskiyum b’yado. (Eiruvin 54a)
Notice, however, that it does not say that to learn Torah, you have to
make yourself like a desert, meaning that you have to be humble. It only
says that humility is necessary for Torah to stay with a person, which
an interesting insight into the impact of Torah on one’s character traits.
For, we see, historically, that just about anyone can learn Torah. And,
today, not just the Written Law, but the Oral Law as well: the Talmud, the
Shulchan Aruch, even parts of Torah so esoteric that they fall into the
of Sod — Kabbalah. Indeed, it is somewhat odd today how many non-
Jews study Torah on all levels, while so many Jews do not care to learn it
even the most basic levels.
So, whereas once one of the main distinctions between the Jewish people
and the nations of the world was our access to the Oral Law (Temurah
14b), today, it is not necessarily so. How much so is this the case today
the Internet, which allows access to all kinds of Torah sites, for anyone
cares to enter them.
The difference, therefore, is one of kiyum — the “keeping” of Torah. In
other words, Torah can go into anyone, but it usually doesn’t stay, passing
instead right through the person, like passengers catching a connecting
flight. Torah won’t affect them, or change them, or reveal itself through
them, and that is precisely what Torah, in the true sense of the term, is
For, even though Torah just seems like another book, just another area of
intellectual study, it is far from that. Like superheroes with dual
whose mundane, common lifestyle is meant to conceal the true nature of
the superhero, the physical books and words in which Torah is found conceal
the true nature of Torah, and what it is capable of doing, and THAT is
not something just anyone can access, no matter how many times they pore
over even the deepest of Torah secrets. For that, you have to make yourself
into a midbar, a desert.
This is alluded to by Rashi, and later, the Leshem:
God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light
was good, and God separated between the light and the darkness.
He saw that the wicked were unworthy of using it. He therefore set it
apart for the righteous in the Future Time. (Rashi)
He made a separation in the illumination of the light, so that it should
not flow or give off light except for the righteous, whose actions draw it
down and make it shine. However, the actions of the evil block it, leaving
them in darkness, and this itself was the hiding of the light. (Sha’arei
Leshem, p. 133)
Just as the evil people of history can use the light of the sun, moon, and
stars, as easily as the righteous can, likewise can they open a book of the
Torah or Talmud and read. They can even learn to read them in the original
Hebrew or Aramaic text, to better understand the words they are reading. So
therefore, the verse, Rashi, and the Leshem are obviously not talking about
this level of Divine revelation.
The following story indicates what this means.
Once, when I was looking for an English translation of the Talmud for a
source for an essay I was working on, I went to the Internet to see what
available at that time (cutting and pasting is much easier for me than
in the text myself). As a result, I came across a site that had uploaded
of the Soncino’s English translation of the Talmud, and being familiar
with it from earlier days, I checked it out.
However, though they had remained loyal to the Soncino’s translation
the authors of the site had decided to link sections of the Talmud to
different commentators, so that the reader, should he want to, could
travel to a specific commentator’s work and see what he had to say about
the discussion taking place in the Talmud.
Now, it was clear from the outset that we we’re not talking about the
“Rosh,” the “Ran,” of the “Rif,” or any of the classical Talmudic
These were names I did not recognize, and some didn’t even sound
Jewish. Curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to take a peak and see
who they were, and what they had said about the Talmud. However, based
upon where the link appeared, I could already sense what kind of discussion
was going to ensue.
The truth is, the first one I went to was more than enough for me, being
an anti-Semite, someone whose hate for the Jewish people had found an
outlet while commenting on sections of the Talmud. The person’s disdain
for the rabbis of the Talmud belied a pathological hatred of the Jews
of the Dark Age; if Talmud burning was in vogue today, this person
would throw the first match.
However, when considering the sections of the Talmud that this person
chose to ridicule, I could see how such a person could have no problem
writing such comments. On the surface of these words of the rabbis, they
sound strange to someone with little Talmudic background, and certainly to
someone who feels excluded and insulted by them.
And yet, those same sections of Talmud are learned by Torah Jews far
younger, who do not scratch their hands in wonder or snicker at what they
read. For, these Torah youths learn the words of the Talmud with reverence
and patience: reverence for the Torah they are learning, and patience for
time it will take for them to properly understand and appreciate what, at
time, might seem strange or even outlandish. Being humble as the desert,
the Torah remains with them.
I remember learning Talmud with someone for his first time, decades
ago. Being a ba’al teshuvah, he was trying, at a late age (22 years old),
make the leap from Chumash and Mishnah to Talmud. However, knowing
that many of the concepts we would see would be new for him, and that the
Aramaic itself would be a obstacle, I chose a section of Talmud that I
thought might interest him enough to smooth over some of those bumps.
Not only did the section we learned do that, but many ideas resulted in
some very lively discussion. However, though I didn’t have to worry about
his being turned off of Talmud, since he was clearly committed, still, he
didn’t yet quite have the respect for the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud
necessary to temper his reaction to ideas that, for me, were already part
We didn’t end up agreeing on everything, but we certainly enjoyed
learning with each other: him with me because it was a good start in
and me with him, because he sensitized me to how others on the
“outside” perceive what seems so natural and logical to us on the inside.
a writer, that is an extremely important trait to hone.
Decades later, my friend teaches Talmud himself. Since that earnest
he has gone on to become a talmid chacham in his own right, and I
dare not remind him of our first few sessions together. He would probably
blush, recalling how chutzpadik he must have sounded when he put his
opinion on par with the rabbis of the Talmud. Today, he discusses all
of Torah with tremendous respect and humility, not to mention awe.
In the processing of doing teshuvah, he became more like a desert, and
therefore, Torah remained with him.
I remember hearing a story about a priest who, in the 1800s, feigned
conversion in order to be taught the entire Talmud. Many years later, and
after returning to his former way of life, he wrote a book called, “The
of the Rabbis,” mocking sections of the Talmud that he had “learned,” but
which he did not comprehend according to tradition. He had thought that
he had, but having never become a midbar, Torah did not stay with him,
and therefore, he never related to it properly.
He, and many others like him, made one crucial error: he assumed. He
assumed that what he read and understood was all there was to read and
understand, as he did. It didn’t occur to him, apparently, to say, “What
these rabbis possibly mean? They were intelligent people, so even if what
they say sounds silly to me, perhaps they meant something more.”
Humility, when it comes to Torah, is a hugely important character trait.
With it, you are a better person: a better spouse, father, employer,
etc. With humility, life is good, because you have far fewer complaints
than the person with chutzpah, who has high expectations of what
should automatically be coming his way. The chutzpadik person wants a
refund if things are not just so, whereas the humble person is grateful for
every aspect of the gift of life.
Most important of all, the humble person is a friend of truth, and a
of Torah. As the Talmud states, Torah is compared to liquids because,
just as liquids only flow downward, likewise does Torah only flow
from Heaven to a humble person, to someone who is “low” enough in his
For, a person will not fix that which he thinks aint broke. Whereas a
humble person assumes that everything about him can be improved, a
proud person would rather change the entire world around him, than himself,
to make the world better. If so, then what use does the Torah have with
such a person, since the Torah is all about tikun — rectification.
So, there you have it, the importance of making yourself into a desert in
advance of Kabbalos HaTorah. It is what the Omer Count has been about
from the beginning, about increasing humility. After all, can you get much
more humble than matzah, which is only flour and water? And, as the
Mishnah states, we tell the Pesach story by first reminding ourselves of
humble beginnings, so that we can better appreciate how everything we
have been given is a gift from God.
Therefore, 50 days later, humble as pie, we have, hopefully, cleaned
house. For, the less of the “us” we have inside of us when we learn Torah,
the more of the Torah God will put into us. Most important of all, the more
Torah can stay with us, maximizing its impact on our lives, and enhancing
us spiritually and physically.
Chag Samayach. And, much success at not only receiving the greatest
gift of all, but at keeping it with you as well.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.