Rabbi Avi Goldberg
Former Rosh Kollel in Memphis
After Bnei Yisrael leave Egypt, we learn:
“So God turned the nation to the way of the wilderness to Yam Suf…” (Shmot 13:18)
Traveling via the midbar (wilderness) could be construed as a minor detail – the default option instead of “the way of the Philistines,” (Shmot 13:17) which HaKadosh Baruch Hu wants to avoid.
However, the Rambam suggests that the wilderness is educationally significant in its own right:
“That He, Yitbarach, first accustomed you to the hardship of the wilderness in order to increase your welfare when you enter the Land… For leaving hardship for repose is more pleasant than constant repose. And it is known that were it not for their hardships and travails in the wilderness, they would have been unable to conquer the Land and fight with its inhabitants. The Torah has already said this: ‘For God said, lest the nation reconsider… So God turned the nation to the way of the wilderness to Yam Suf…’ (Shmot 13:17-18) For repose eliminates valor, but subsistence and toil produce valor.” (Moreh Nevuchim 3:24)
Indeed, our parsha begins with the arrangement of the encampment, the censuses, and the statutes which Bnei Yisrael are to follow. These orders and statutes strengthen the nation as they are about to enter Eretz Yisrael. Throughout their sojourn in the midbar, our forefathers are tested ten times, and each ordeal adds another layer to the nation’s vigor and robustness. In other words, the wilderness is not a place of desolation and emptiness. Rather, it is a place for training and building.
The Midrash Rabah (Bamidbar Rabah 1:2) has a different approach. According to the Midrash, the wilderness serves as a respite for Bnei Yisrael before they enter Eretz Yisrael. The years in the midbar are a period when Bnei Yisrael can build the nation in peace and tranquility.
Parshat Bamidbar is always read on the Shabbat before Chag Matan Torah (i.e. Shavuot). The Gemara (BT Megilah 31b) notes that Ezra HaSofer decreed that the klalot (curses) in Sefer Vayikra are read before Atzeret (i.e. Shavuot). However, interestingly, our custom is to read the parsha of the klalot (Parshat Bechukotai) two weeks before Shavuot, and Parshat Bamidbar is read in the week immediately preceding Shavuot. (Tosafot explain that we nevertheless prefer to separate the klalot from Matan Torah.)
Yet, reading Parshat Bamidbar this week carries an important lesson for us as we prepare to receive the Torah. The pasuk states:
“And from the wilderness, a gift. And from the gift, to Nachliel, and from Nachliel to the heights. And from the heights to the ravine…” (Bamidbar 21:18-20)
“When a person makes himself like the wilderness, which is abandoned to everything, the Torah is given to him as a gift, as it says, ‘and from the wilderness, a gift.’ And since it was given to him as a gift, he inherits it from God (nachalo E-l), as it says, ‘and from the gift, to Nachliel.’ And since he inherits it from God, he ascends to greatness, as it says, ‘and from Nachliel to the heights.’ But if he lifts himself up, HaKadosh Baruch Hu brings him down, as it says, ‘and from the heights to the ravine…’” (BT Nedarim 55a)
In order to be ready to receive the Torah, we must study the trait of anavah (humility). We must make ourselves like the wilderness – to know that we really have nothing of our own – and in this way, our strengths will be revealed. Our approach to the Torah and learning must be one of negating ourselves before the Word of Hashem, which appears to us in the Torah. Another famous Midrash (BT Sotah 5a) asks why HaKadosh Baruch Hu specifically chooses to rest His Shechinah on Har Sinai? The answer is that Har Sinai is the lowest mountain in the area, and HaKadosh Baruch Hu desires anavah. Similarly, we – who aspire to cleave to HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s Midot (traits) – must also choose anavah.
The Maharal (Netzach Yisrael 26) also addresses the issue of receiving the Torah in the midbar. Since the wilderness is unsuitable for normal life, it is the ideal setting for a Revelation which goes beyond life. The Torah cannot be compared to any other wisdom or to any other creation in this world. Rather, the Torah preceded this world by many generations (BT Shabbat 88, et al). In order to en- counter the Torah, we must give up some of our regular lives, negate ourselves, and acquire the trait of anavah. Not by chance was the Torah given through Moshe Rabbeinu, about whom the Torah states:
“And the man Moshe was exceedingly humble; more than any person on the face of the earth.” (Bamidbar 12:3)
Perhaps this is why the Torah does not provide us with an exact date for Shavuot. It is as if the Torah is intentionally reminding us that only through self-negation can the Torah be further revealed. Moreover, unlike the other festivals, there are no practical mitzvot which are specific to Shavuot. Perhaps the Torah is instructing us to negate our personalities and our palpable and diverse characteristics in order to encounter the Torah. Now is the time for us to strengthen our Torah learning and our mitzvah-observance, which results from negation before the Torah and the Giver of the Torah.
May we be privileged to accept the yoke of Torah and mitzvot – lovingly, joyfully and completely.