Friday, May 22, 2009

Parshat Bamidbar - פרשת במדבר

This Shabbat we start the fourth book of the Torah - Sefer Bamidbar. In fact, there are actually two names for this Parsha and Sefer - it is also known by the name Sefer Pekudim, the "Book of Numbers" as the book opens with the census of Bnei Yisrael. The other name, Bamidbar, might be perceived as somewhat irrelevant, though - how can we relate to Am Yisrael's trek across the desert to reach Israel? We can say plenty about the need for census and equality (each man would be counted equally, each bringing exactly half a shekel,) but how much can we derive from the fact that the Jews traversed the wilderness?

This week I heard a number of Divrei Torah, and one speaker (I can't remember who exactly) said something interesting. He made the point that Hashem created the world exactly as He saw fit, and that everything is made the way it is for a reason. Therefore if Hashem wanted mainland Egypt to be next to Israel, he would have arranged the world to be that way. The fact that He designed the world with a desert between Egypt and Israel clearly is significant and not without meaning and intention.

The Sfas Emet focuses on the meaning of the Hebrew word for desert, מדבר, and suggests that we may learn how to improve our character traits by understanding the nature of the desert. The Sfat Emet explains that the root of the word for speech (dibbur) is דבר. Clearly there is a connection between the concept of speech and the concept of a desert - a place devoid of all extraneous details.

Some roots have multiple meanings and the root דבר also has another meaning - "to lead". The Sfat Emet then explains that the word Midbar could be interpreted as having a passive meaning, "to be led." The link between these two meanings seems unclear, though.

The Sfat Emet may be suggesting a number of things. Firstly, we must realise that when we reach times and places in our lives that are resemble a desert, we should try our best to give ourselves over to Hashem's leadership. All too often we have no idea where we are going and what we are doing, and if we try to work it out by ourselves we will only get confused and bewildered. Of course I'm not saying that one should have blind faith, but it is important to recognise that everything comes from heaven, and that we should not have faith in our own (God-given) abilities.

Secondly, we learn in the Medrash that in order to progress in the study of Torah, one must be careful to recognise that he is nothing without Hashem, and all that he has is attributed to God. Each and every one of us must learn to train ourselves to overcome our own sense of pride and personal achievement. In this way, when one learns Torah, he will not feel proud of his intelligence. In time, one reaches the madreiga whereby he considers himself "hefker," free and accessible to all claimants, like the desert.

I would like to tender an additional resolution of my own - the desert is not really all that different to other parts of the world, but it is defined it's lack of all extraneous details. If there is something that we would do well to learn, it is that we should learn how to speak properly and in accordance with Hashem's will. Man is the only creature in this world that has the distinction of being able to talk, and this is no accident - we are created in God's image. Each and every time we speak, we emulate Hashem, and it is vitally important that we use this ability selectively and cautiously.

Each time one speaks, one should think first and decide whether he needs to speak at all, and even if he does, whether he is saying the right thing. Unfortunately, we often have an inclination to speaking disparagingly of others, something clearly illicit within Torah law. It is important to learn how to limit one's speech in circumstances. On a different note, people also tend to "talk themselves up" and make themselves out to be better people than they actually are, When Am Yisrael were given the Torah they didn't go directly to Eretz Yisrael. Maybe one of the reasons was that they first had to head through the desert in order to realise their total dependence on Hashem and learn a measure of humility before they would be allowed to re-engage with the world.

Rav Yitzcak Ginsurgh of Kfar Chabad teaches that if we think picture the desert in our mind's eye, we see a vast expanse of land and absolute silence. How paradoxical it is that the Hebrew root for desert is connected with the root for speech!

There is a famous story told in Sefer Malachim of Eliyahu Hanavi encountering Hashem in a cave in the desert. Several natural phenomena accompanied Hashem's presence: first an earth-shattering wind passed him by, but the verse states that Hashem was "not in the wind." Then a tremendous earthquake shook him, but again, the verse states that Hashem was not in this phenomena, either. Following the earthquake, Eliyahu saw a great fire, but once again, Hashem was not in the fire. But the next verse reads, "And after the fire — a still silent voice."

Many things can be learned from this cryptic passage, but most relevant to us is the concept of a voice. Eliyahu heard a quiet voice and through that voice recognised Hashem. Moreover, Eliyahu experienced the still, silent voice of God in the desert. The word used to describe this still voice is Chashmal, a word that means electricity in modern Hebrew, is a compound of two other words; חש - silence, and מל - speaking. We can understand the concept of the "chashmal," having read this passage, as a kind of electrifying charge that can be experienced only in the atmosphere of neutrality and calm. Hopefully we can learn from the lessons of the midbar and will work towards the spiritual level that Eliyahu attained.

Wishing you a שבת שלום ומבורך.

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