June 18, 2024
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June 18, 2024
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The midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:2) on our parsha records Hashem bemoaning the fact that He is not currently with Bnei Yisrael in the desert—the place where He was praised. The midrash gives an analogy of a leader of a country who entered one of his provinces. The inhabitants of the province saw him and fled. He then entered a second province, and its inhabitants also fled.. He then entered a city in ruins, and its inhabitants greeted him and praised him. The leader remarked, “This individual city is better than all those provinces with their multiple cities. Here I will build a lodging, and here I shall reside.”

Similarly, when Hashem came to the sea, it fled from before him, as it states (Tehillim 114:3), “The sea saw and fled.” And similarly, the mountains fled from before him [at that time], as it states (ibid., v. 4), “The mountains skipped like rams.” However, when Hashem came to the desert of desolation, it greeted Him and praised Him, as it states (Yeshayah 42), “The desert … will sing out … They will render glory to Hashem, etc.”

It can be asked: Why did those provinces flee from the leader, whereas the city in ruins greeted and praised him? Why did those provinces not want the leader, whereas the city in ruins did?

R’ Yissocher Frand explained that those cities knew that if the leader resided in their province it would impact their lifestyle, and they would have to change. They had their ways of doing things, and they wanted to stick with them. However, the city in ruins knew that it anyway had nothing, and hence, they were open to change, so they accepted and desired the leader to reside amongst them. R’ Frand thus noted, if one wants to accept Torah, he must be like a desert—ready and open; Torah takes root in a person who says, “Change me.” Indeed, to change—to be open to accepting, inculcating and practicing Torah, and for the Torah to truly have an impact on a person—may require one to be like a desert, i.e., to have the middah of humility.

Our parsha begins by stating that “Hashem spoke to Moshe in the desert of Sinai.” What’s the significance of stating that Hashem spoke to Moshe specifically in a desert? The Midrash explains that this is meant to teach us that “Anyone who does not make himself like a desert [that is] ownerless, cannot acquire wisdom or Torah”; therefore, it states explicitly that Hashem spoke to Moshe in the “desert” (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7). This idea may be learned from the juxtaposition of the very last pasuk in the parsha earlier (Bechukotai) and the very first pasuk of our parsha (Bamidbar). Indeed, the last pasuk of last week’s parsha states, “These are the mitzvot that Hashem commanded Moshe to Bnei Yisrael on Har Sinai,” and thus, the Baal Haturim (Bamidbar 1:1) notes that the juxtaposition between that, and “desert,” mentioned in the first pasuk of our parsha, is to tell us that “If a person does not make himself like a desert, he will be unable to know Torah and mitzvot.”

Much like the mention of “desert” teaches us the aforementioned idea, so too, we can suggest that the mention of “Sinai” in the pasuk also might allude to the same idea. The midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7) on our parsha says that the Torah was given in three things: in fire, in water and in the desert. The Ktav Sofer (Bamidbar) explains that these three things come to teach something specific. Regarding water, he says this can be explained based on the midrash that explains why words of Torah are compared to water (as is learned from the pasuk in Yeshayah 55:1). It is to teach us that just like water descends from a high place to a lower one, so too, the Torah leaves aside those who are haughty, and instead goes to those who are humble. Similarly, adds the Ktav sofer, the Torah was given on Har Sinai—a low mountain—to teach us this idea as well, namely, that Torah has a lasting effect only on those who are humble.

Hence, based on this Ktav Sofer, perhaps the specific mention of which desert it was, namely, Sinai, can also teach the same idea of that which we learn from “desert.”

From all of the above, we perhaps learn the great importance of being humble, and that humility is a highly fundamental middah that is a crucial prerequisite in order to truly merit Torah. Someone who refines his character, leaves aside his ego and self-interests and becomes like an “ownerless desert” to be open to hear and accept Torah and its teachings, can perhaps truly merit to grow and succeed in Torah and mitzvot and for the Torah to make a profound and lasting effect on him.

The beginning of our parsha discusses the census, which Moshe, Aharon, as well as the tribal leaders would conduct. The Torah goes on to name all the tribal leaders. Rav Shimon Schwab asks, We already know the names of the tribal leaders from the Torah’s earlier discussion of the Chanukat HaMizbeyach (the Dedication of the Mishkan)—they are the very Nesiim (leaders) mentioned there by name! Why, then, are they being mentioned by name again here? He asks further why the Torah, in our parsha (chp. 1, verses 4, 5, and 16), refers to these leaders as “men” without according them a title of authority and leadership, despite the fact that they are Nesiim and are in a position of authority and leadership! What’s the reason for this?

As mentioned earlier from the midrash, the mention of “desert” in the first pasuk of our parsha teaches us that one can only acquire Torah by making himself ownerless like a desert. Based on this, Rav Schwab explains that Hashem is teaching these Nesiim that even though they are Nesiim and honorable people, nevertheless, they too are to make themselves ownerless like a desert, and deem themselves in their eyes like they are simple people—just plain “men.” Therefore, the aforementioned verses refer to them as men, disregarding their high status. And, although we know who these leaders were, mentioning them by name again here impresses the idea of being a regular, simple person, without all the status (“Maayan Bet Hashoeyva,” Bamidbar).

The Nesiim were exceptionally spiritually-elevated people—they were the leaders of tribes! It can perhaps be assumed that they were very advanced in Torah learning too! Yet, according to Rav Schwab, it seems that even such people needed to make themselves like an “ownerless desert”—to work on being humble—in order to truly merit acquiring Torah.

It would, perhaps, emerge from here that this lesson applies even to those of lofty spiritual status, and, therefore, even those who are highly accomplished in Torah and well–rounded people may still need to work on humility in order to truly merit Torah. This teaches us that since there may always be room for more growth and more Torah, developing humility may be ongoing work.


Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work.

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