Friday, May 25, 2012

Parshat Bamidbar & Shavuot - פרשת במדבר וחג שבועות

This Shabbat we commence reading 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 how we may learn a lesson in equality from it (each man would be counted equally; each bringing exactly half a shekel no matter what his social standing was,) but how much can we derive from the fact that the Jews traversed the wilderness?

There is a concept in Torah thought that nothing in the world is completely by chance. Hashem created the world with precision, so that everything would serve a higher purpose. We believe that even the way the earth has been shaped reflects a higher purpose. 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. When the Jews left Egypyt in the great Exodus, there was no way for them to get to Israel other than passing through the desert. (They happened to take a long way round, but the desert still presented an unavoidable obstacle.) As such, if Hashem wanted the Jewish people to travel through the desert in order to enter the land of Israel, there has to be something we may learn. The Sfas Emet teaches something which will hopefully prove relevant in understanding this problem better. He 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. I would like to suggest that once the Jews had left Egypt, they were in a state, both physically and mentally, where they were unfit to enter the land of Israel. First they needed the solitary environment of the desert in which they were rid of all distractions and in which they would have the chance to first accept the Torah, and then start to build their lives around it. The metaphor of a child going to school serves as a good example for this; children are sent to school at a young age. Most schools are run according to a very tightly controlled syllabus and timetable. Everything is ordered in such a way so that the students do not need to worry about anything other than their studies. Only after completing their studies do children enter the world of work and adulthood. But that does not mean to say that school was irrelevant and was merely a part of their past. On the contrary, it was an essential building block to progressing further in life.

So too with the desert; the Jewish people had to be taken through a preparatory stage before it was possible for them to enter the land of Israel. Returning to another one of the meanings for those root letters, דבר, "speech", I'd like to repeat something taught by Rav Yitzcak Ginsurgh of Kfar Chabad. He 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.

The lesson seems abundantly clear; before we can ever achieve whatever it is that we need to do in life, it is essential to withdraw to a degree and ready oneself for the forthcoming challenge. We must dispense with all the distractions and be prepared to listen to that quiet voice inside ourselves that serves as our moral compass. It is only when we take the time to listen to ourselves and what we really want, that we can ever hope to achieve our goals.

Speech can be used in many ways. One of its applications is that people may use it as a weapon. It is common, but nonetheless an unfortunate trait, for people to talk too much, in a manner full of bluster and arrogance. Once we take time for ourselves, we find ourselves imbued with a powerful energy borne of our sense of responsibility and a belonging to a higher cause. In turn, we learn how to speak properly; not to talk ourselves up and brag. Hopefully we can learn from the lessons of the midbar and will work towards the spiritual level that Eliyahu attained in the verse above and attain our own connection with God.

Wishing you all a שבת שלום ומבורך.


Following Shabbat we celebrate Shavuot, the festival which marks the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. In Parshat Yitro, we read of how the events unfolded that momentous day.

When writing about Parshat Yitro previously, I have noted the fascinating phrase, "וכל העם רואים את הקולות - And the people saw the thunder". Noting that the faculty of vision is one which can be extremely misleading, I wrote:

"We can’t presume to know anything about anything by looking at it. The only way to know for sure is by listening to something, by slowly and closely analysing it. But at Har Sinai, when we were in such close proximity to Hashem, we experienced a return to the state of Adam HaRishon whereby our senses all told us the same thing, whereby they all told us the absolute truth. In this context we can understand the concept of Am Yisrael seeing the Kolot [thunder], because their hearing and their seeing were no different from one another. We can now understand that which normally has to be heard, (as in Sh’ma Yisrael – the knowledge of Hashem,) was so obvious and clear that Am Yisrael could clearly perceive through even the most deceiving of the senses." (Source)

That is one explanation. In this D'var Torah, I would like to mention another so that we can regard this occurence from a different perspective.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has an intiguing D'var Torah that sheds light on this phenomenon. There is a Midrash (I can't find the original, but it is cited in Yalkut Shimoni and certainly appears in the Mechilta) that reads thus: "בשם רבי: "להודיע שבחן של ישראל שכשעמדו כולן לפני הר סיני לקבל את התורה היו שומעים את הדיבור ומפרשים אותו". We read here that Rebbi taught that at Har Sinai, when the Jewish people heard Hashem speaking to them, they didn't just hear the words but also interpreted them on their own. The source for this is found in Deuteronomy 32:10, where it says "יסובבנהו יבוננהו", which means "He encircled him, He made him comprehending".

We take the passage above to mean that Hashem made man an intellecual, reasoning and interpretive creature. As such, when we were given the Torah at Har Sinai, we didn't merely enjoy the uniquely magnificent sound and light show in a passive manner. When we read of the incredible spectacle that occured at Har Sinai that day, total silence shattered by blasts of the shofar, iluminated by crashes of thunder and roaring lightning, it would be easy to imagine the onlooking Jewish people as regarding things in a manner somewhat resembling a theatre audience.

It would be easy to simply take in what was happening, such was the awesome scale of this "show". Instead, the people took more than a simple passive role and instead took on a crucial role, participating in receiving the Torah. This is powerful lesson to us all - we never simply receive something in this world. The Torah is not a static entity with no relevance to us. We all have a deep connection to it and it remains up to us to engage with the Torah.

From Jerusalem, wishing you a stimulating and challenging Shavuot.

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