The Gemara brings a story that took place between the great sage Rava and a heretic. Rava was apparently deeply engrossed in his Torah studies, so much so that his fingers that he had put under his legs were getting crushed and his fingers were flowing with blood. The heretic saw this and said to Rava, “You are an impulsive people who put their mouths before their ears [since we said ‘we will do’ before saying ‘we will listen’ and inquire first], and still continue and persevere in your impulsiveness! You should have first heard [what the Torah is about and its responsibilities to determine if they are too difficult or not] so that you would have known whether you were able to accept them, and if you didn’t first hear the commandments you should not have accepted them.” Rava answered back, “We are a people who go with Hashem with complete faith and trust, like one who loves another and because of his love trusts him and relies on him; therefore, we relied on Hashem that he wouldn’t give us something that we would not be able to handle and withstand” (Gemara Shabbat 88a with Rashi).
We perhaps learn from Rava’s response that a necessary prerequisite for accepting the Torah is the ability to fully trust in Hashem. The fact that we were able to fully trust in Hashem led us to unequivocally accept upon ourselves the Torah without first asking “what’s inside it.”
The pasuk in Parshat Bamidbar says, “And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert” (1:1). The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7) asks: Why was the Torah given in a desert? The Midrash answers that this is to teach us that if one does not make himself like a desert—meaning hefker (free)—he won’t be able to acquire wisdom and Torah.
What does it mean to make oneself hefker like a desert? Perhaps we can explain based on the idea we learn from Rava. One who can put his faith in Hashem and trust that Hashem will have his back is a person who is open and willing to live with the truth. Such a person isn’t worried about finding out new truths because he understands that if this is Hashem’s will then it must be workable for him. Such a person does not have an agenda or his own ambitions that differ from Hashem’s, but rather he is hefker—completely free and open to accept upon himself the will of Hashem. Such a person will easily be able to absorb Torah and live with it. This desert man is an open pipeline to accept, grow and adapt to a higher living.
R’ Gavriel Friedman relates the story about R’ Noach Weinberg (founder of Aish HaTorah), who when he was a student in yeshiva was a very ambitious student: He would be at Shacharit on time, he would come to his studies on time, he did everything according to the book. His rosh yeshiva came over to him and said, “Listen, you do everything accordingly, but maybe a little mesirat nefesh (self-sacrifice)? Maybe come a little earlier, maybe learn a little more and retire for the night a little later? Rav Noach responded: “I am simply following the structure of the Rambam who says to sleep a certain amount, etc. There is a whole regimen of how to live your life, and one of them is sleeping a certain amount, and that is what I am doing!” Some time after, the rosh yeshiva sees Rav Noach coming to Shacharit earlier and retiring for the night later. He said to Rav Noach, “I don’t get it, what happened to the Rambam?” Rav Noach responded, “Well, I am simply following the Rambam.” The rosh yeshiva said, “So then why aren’t you going to sleep on time and getting the sleep that is required?” Rav Noach responded, “I’m referring to a different Rambam—that someone who wants to acquire Torah needs to sleep less, etc.” Rav Noach was open to new truths, and put those revelations into practice.
When we trust in Hashem and have the faith that He has our backs, we too can become hefker to Hashem, open to receive Torah, and ultimately be able to turn it into a Torah that we live with.
Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He can be reached at [email protected]