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Like a Desert

Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )

by Rabbi Zev Leff

Why was the Torah given to the Jewish nation in a desert?

"And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai desert": Anyone who does not make himself hefker (ownerless) like the desert cannot acquire wisdom or Torah, and therefore it says, " the Sinai desert." (Midrash – Bamidbar Rabba 1:7)

A hefker object is one of such little value to its owner that he formally abandons it and makes it available to all. Let us consider what is meant by making oneself hefker.

One must be prepared to forsake, if necessary, all worldly pleasures for the sake of Torah (see commentary of the Maharzav to the Midrash). "Torah can only be preserved in one who kills himself for it" (Talmud – Sotah 21a).

And as the Mishnah says (Avot 6:4):

This is the way of Torah: Eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure, sleep on the ground, and live a life of deprivation – but toil in the Torah! If you do this, "You are praiseworthy and all is well with you." You are "praiseworthy" in this world, "and all is well with you" – in the World to Come.

Material deprivation may not be a necessary condition for learning Torah, but only one who is prepared to forego every pleasure and comfort for his Torah learning will ever achieve a deep understanding of Torah.

The true student of Torah must be as obsessed with Torah, as the lover with his beloved (see commentary of Rashash to the above Midrash; Maimonides – Teshuva 10:6). Just as the lover's thoughts are always of the beloved, so, too, one who truly wishes to plumb the depths of Torah cannot make his learning contingent on time, place or circumstance. Only when one feels that the Torah alone gives meaning to his life, will he be able to forego all other comforts and pleasures for its sake.

After relating that the Jewish people came to Sinai, the Torah repeats itself and says that they left Refidim and came to Sinai. From this repetition, the Sages learn that just as they came to Sinai in repentance, so did they leave Refidim in repentance. The Jewish people were attacked by Amalek at Refidim precisely because of their weakness in Torah learning. After that attack, they might have reasoned that Refidim was not spiritually conducive to teshuva and waited until they reached Sinai to strengthen themselves in repentance.

The Torah emphatically negates such an attitude. If a person waits for the perfect time or place to undertake a new course in Torah, that ideal moment or place will never materialize. Had they not done teshuva in Refidim, they would not have done teshuva in the Sinai desert either.


There is another aspect to the requirement of abandoning oneself to Torah that is even more difficult than the forfeiture of material comforts – the attainment of humility. One must both be humble enough to learn from every person and to teach everyone, regardless of status.

Even more importantly, he must be prepared to divest himself of all his preconceived ideas and beliefs. Only if one is prepared to let the Torah possess him and guide him totally, will its secrets be revealed.

"All are blind until God opens their eyes" (Midrash – Bereishis Rabba 53). When we view the world through our own eyes we are subject to our material desires and the distorting effects of passion and bias. Only when we let the Torah mold our thought processes can we view the world in its true perspective. There is no truer humility than subjugating one's most precious possession, his mind, to the Torah.

In order to serve on the Sanhedrin, one had to be able to prove that a sheretz (species of reptile) does not cause ritual impurity, even though the Torah explicitly says that it does. The judges had to recognize that with their own great mental acuity they could convince themselves of almost anything, and therefore needed to subject their own thinking to that of the Torah.

The Rogachover Gaon once gave a lecture to his students in which he proved that chametz is permitted on Passover. He then asked his students to refute his proof. They tried in vain to do so. When they gave up, the Rogachover opened the Bible and read them: "Do not eat chametz" (Exodus 13:3). That, he said, is the only refutation necessary. All the intellectual gymnastics in the world cannot alter one sentence in the Torah.


"The words of the wise are like prods." (Ecclesiastes 12:11)

Just as the prod directs the ox to plow in a straight line, so, too, does Torah guide and condition one to think in the paths of life (Talmud – Chagiga 3b).

The commentator Smah (to Choshen Mishpat 3:13) comments that the thinking of laypeople is opposite to that of Torah thinking. The intention is not to denigrate the layperson, but to point out that when we rely on our own reasoning, distortion is the inevitable result. When we seek the guidance of Torah sages, we are seeking a mind so steeped in Torah – to the exclusion of all personal biases – that everything that they say or do is solely a reflection of their understanding of the Torah, i.e., Da'as Torah. Only a mind conditioned to thinking from God's point of view, as revealed in the Torah, can view the world without distortion.

After their Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people needed to follow God into a harsh, howling desert, and place themselves totally in His care, before they could receive the Torah. And after the gift of the Torah, they still needed to be chastised time and again, as we read throughout the Book of Numbers, until they molded their attitudes and opinions to a Torah perspective.


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