This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Shavuot (5766 (1))
This week's section Bamidbar (which means In the desert) begins the fourth book of the Torah and sets the stage for the holiday of Shavuot this coming week.
The Baal Shem Tov (who passed away on Shavuot some 250 years ago) taught that every detail of Creation and especially every word of the Torah contains deep, mystical, and personal messages.
So when the holiday of Shavuot comes in the week of Bamidbar, there must be a major message, and here it seems to be obvious: the Torah was given in the desert (Exodus 10:1).
And the Talmud explains that this comes to teach us that just as a desert is ownerless and anyone can take what's in it for free, so also the Torah is available to everyone free for the taking.
But, seemingly, this is not so!
The Torah is not ownerless; it was given to the Jews. And it's not free
either: learning it is hard work (and Torah academies cost a fortune to maintain).
In fact, the desert and the Torah are opposites! The desert is dead while the Torah is so alive that at Sinai it brought with it special "dew that had the power to enliven even the dead" (all the Jews died from the overdose of G-dliness revealed there and had to be brought back to life!).
So why was the Torah given "in the desert"?
To understand this, here is a story about the Baal Shem Tov (Shmuot v'Sipurim, Rav R.HaCohen, volume 1, page13):
Once the Besht (short for Baal Shem Tov) took ten of his best pupils, loaded them into his carriage, and told his driver to release the reins. It seems that the Besht's holiness affected even his horses because they knew exactly where to go.
They sped down roads, open fields, over hills, and through valleys with tremendous determination for several hours until they suddenly stopped near a brook at the edge of a forest in the middle of nowhere.
The Besht ordered everyone to get out and to take food and a bottle of vodka. They got out and ritually washed their hands before eating bread and at the end of their modest meal, the Besht dug a small hole in the loose ground near them, filled his cup with vodka, and told the others to do the same.
"L'chaim!" he yelled joyously over the chirping of the birds and the bubbling brook and the rustling of the grasses around them. They all replied "L'chaim!" and, to the amazement of the others while they drank, the Besht poured the contents of his cup into the hole and told them to get ready to leave.
Once back home the Besht explained the incident with a tragic tale:
"Several years ago there lived a well-off Torah scholar with a beautiful, intelligent daughter of marriageable age. He spared no money or effort to find her a suitable match and finally his efforts paid off. He found a wonderful, intelligent, G-d-fearing young man -- the best pupil in one of the best yeshivot, a real find!
"After the wedding the young couple lived a life of heaven on earth. All their needs were taken care of. He spent all his time learning Torah while his wife managed the business. When his father-in-law passed away, he inherited it all.
"But he had one small character flaw that burst the entire balloon. He was an egotist.
"At every opportunity he felt he had to show off his superior knowledge until it became hard to bear. But the one who took the most notice was the local priest.
"This priest was clever, dedicated, wealthy, and ruthless, and he knew an easy catch when he saw one. He began frequenting one of the shops run by the young scholar's wife, making friendly comments, turning on the charm, and buying things he didn't even need in order to gain her trust.
"And it worked. One day when she mentioned that her husband was ill, the priest requested and was granted permission to visit him...and from then on it was easy pickings.
"It wasn't long before the priest won the young scholar's friendship with attention and praises and convinced him to recuperate at his estate in the country where the air was clear. The young man could even bring along his own cook so the food would be kosher. He could stay, free of cost, until he was well. The only payment the priest requested in return was to converse with the young scholar daily - "to drink from his unending Torah wisdom."
"But once there, the priest heavily bribed the cook to turn the other way while he put non-kosher food into the menu (he knew that non-kosher food affects the Jewish soul) and within a week the young man was thinking differently about Judaism.
"One thing led to another. The young man became so infatuated with the attention he received that, little by little, he stopped fulfilling the commandments. After only a few months he decided to change his religion!
"And so it was. He wrote home informing his wife he would never return. He changed religions and the priest gave him his daughter as a new wife.
"The young man rose quickly in the ranks of the church until he too became as wealthy and powerful as his new "father-in-law." But then his world turned over again.
The Baal Shem continued: "It so happened that one day, as he went for a stroll in one of the orchards on the massive church grounds, the young man heard a strange wailing and weeping coming from the hut where the watchman of the orchard lived.
"He went to the hut, knocked on the door, and entered to see the guard, an older man perhaps in his sixties, sitting in a chair and weeping uncontrollably.
"He stood there for a while watching him and finally asked what happened.
"'I'm a Jew!' moaned the guard, eyes puffed and red from crying. 'That is, I was before I changed my religion. And today is the Jewish Day of Atonement called Yom Kippur. I'm crying because I'm thinking of how far I've gone from the G-d of Israel! Oy! Oy!' And he began crying once more.
"When the young priest heard this it broke his heart. Before he knew it, he ran from the guard's hut deep into the orchard and began weeping uncontrollably himself. It only took him a few minutes to regret everything he had done and a few minutes more to decide to leave the church and return to Judaism no matter what the cost.
"The next day, when he didn't return, his wife began to search for him until it became clear that the last person to see him was the guard and when the guard related their conversation, the priest's wife realized what had happened.
"The matter touched her deeply; if her husband was willing to lose so much
-- his position, wife, and riches to return to Judaism, then there must be a very good reason. A few days later she too decided to run away and convert to Judaism.
"It wasn't long until the news got back to the guard and he began thinking.
He realized that he had caused two people to be Jewish while he himself was stuck in the church. He decided that he too had to try to return to Judaism before it was too late.
"He packed a small suitcase and set off with plans to find a Rabbi who would help him to repent, but on the way, in the very spot we that we ate that meal, he fell ill, died, and was buried by passers-by.
"Just now he was being judged in Heaven," the Baal Shem Tov related. "The prosecuting angels brought all his sins and pointed out that he never actually repented while the defending angels argued that his change of heart was sufficient. That is why we went there today.
"The L'chaim that I poured into his grave was enough to sway the decision in his favor."
This answers our questions.
The Torah was put into this world to transform it to holiness, to reveal the Creator in His Creation. Something like how it was in the Holy Temple. And the Temple, especially the Holy of Holies, was exactly like the revelation at the Giving of the Torah.
In fact, without Torah, the entire world is like a desert - dead and meaningless, like the people in our story realized.
So this is the lesson here.
We must learn the Torah, say its words out loud (the word for man -- MeDaBeR
-- has the same letters as desert -- MiDBaR) and do all of its commandments.
In other words, we must use our powers of thought, speech, and action to bring the Torah into the world and to transform the physical world into the higher level of Heaven on Earth. And like the desert it is free for all to do because essentially this physical world, if used according to the Torah, is higher than the spiritual.
Like the physical Holy of Holies, which contained the Torah, was much higher than the highest spiritual heavens. That is why the Besht's physical "L'chaim!" could tilt the judgment in Heaven.
Because the Baal Shem Tov and all the Tzadikim (righteous men and women) after him lived their lives for the reason G-d gave the Torah: to elevate even the lowest physical levels.
This will be, and is, the job of Moshiach.
He will be expert in all aspects of the Torah, will teach it to all mankind, and will compel everyone to follow its precepts (including the seven Noahide commandments for the Gentiles). But most importantly, he will be the embodiment of G-d's desire to elevate the world.
Then, truly, this "desert" of Creation will be transformed into a symphony of meaning, blessing, and joy - the joy of Torah.
And the Lubavitcher Rebbe said it's all up to us to bring him one instant sooner. We must do all we can to learn about Moshiach and prepare ourselves and the world for...
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