This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Bamidbar (5766)
This week's section Bamidbar (In the desert) begins the fourth book of the Pentateuch and sets the stage for the holiday of Shavuot, in just over a week commemorating the giving of the Torah over 3,326 years ago.
The teachings of mystical Judaism, especially those of the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Chassidic Judaism who passed away on Shavuot some 250 years ago) tell us that every detail of Creation and especially every word of the Torah contains deep, personal messages.
So when the holiday of Shavuot comes after 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 why: just as a desert is ownerless and everything in it is 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 lot of money to maintain.
In fact, the desert and the Torah are opposites! The desert is dead while the Torah is alive; so alive that at Sinai it brought with it "dew that had the power to enliven the dead"
So why was the Torah given "in the desert"?
To understand this, here is a story within 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 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 for several hours until they suddenly stopped near a brook at the edge of a forest.
The Besht ordered everyone to get out and to take food and a bottle of vodka. They got out, set up a table, arranged the food, and ritually washed their hands before eating bread. Then, at the end of their modest meal the Besht filled his cup with vodkand 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 drank. But to the amazement of the others the Besht, instead of drinking, made a small hole in the dirt, poured the contents of his cup into it, told them say the blessing after eating and get ready to leave.
Once back home the Besht explained:
"Several years ago there lived a rich Torah scholar with a beautiful, daughter of marriageable age. He spared no money or effort to find her a suitable match and found a wonderful, intelligent, G-d-fearing young man -- the best pupil in one of the best Torah academies!
"After the wedding the young couple lived a life of heaven on earth. All their needs were taken care of. The young man spent all his time learning Torah while his wife managed her father's business dealings and when he suddenly passed away, they inherited it all.
"But the young man had a character flaw that burst the entire balloon. At every opportunity he had to prove to himself and all those around him his superiority in Torah knowledge, and his egotism was hard for others to bear. The only one who took it positively 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, asking about her husband, 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, he was granted permission to make a visit ..and from then on it was easy pickings.
"The priest won the sick scholar's friendship and convinced him to recuperate at his estate in the country where the air was clear free of cost promising that he could bring along his own food and personal cook so the food would be kosher. All he requested in return was to converse with the young scholar and 'drink from his unending Torah wisdom."
"But once there, the priest, in addition to the flattery, managed to slip non-kosher food onto the young man's plate (non-kosher food affects the Jewish soul) and within a few weeks he became confused about Judaism and only a few months later he wrote to his wife informing her he would never return, was leaving her all the money, sending her a bill of divorce and was changing his religion. The priest gave him his daughter as a new wife and he began a new exciting life.
"The young man rose quickly in the ranks of the church until he became incompatibly more wealthy and powerful than before …. And the future was even more promising.
"But then his world turned over again.
"The Baal Shem continued: "It so happened that one day, years later, as he went for a stroll in one of the orchards on the massive church grounds, he 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 and finally asked why he was crying.
"'I'm a Jew!' moaned the guard, eyes puffed and red from weeping. '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. Uncontrollably he ran from the guard's hut deep into the orchard and began weeping himself. It only took him a few minutes to regret everything he had done and a few minutes more to decide to, on the spot, run as far away as possible from 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, she 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 too 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.
"Back there in the forest was the exact time that 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. The the entire world would be like it was in the Holy of Holies in the Holy Temple where there were the Tablets and was the exact same revelation as at Sinai.
But it was given in a desert….. because, as the people in our story realized, without Torah entire world is a dead and meaningless wasteland.
So this is the lesson here. The Torah was given to transform the creation and with it we can spiritually enliven and irrigate even the 'desert' of this world.
We must learn the Torah, say its words out loud (the word for desert; MeDBaR has the same letters as 'speak') and do all of its commandments to make the desert into a spiritual oasis.
In other words, we must use our powers of thought, speech, and action to to transform the physical world into Heaven on Earth.
Even more: this physical world, if used according to the Torah, is even 'higher' than the spiritual! That is how the Besht's physical "L'chaim!" in our story could tilt the judgment in Heaven.
This will be, and is, the job of Moshiach. As the Rambam writes (Laws of Kings Chapt. 11)
Moshiach will be expert in all aspects of the Torah, will teach it to all mankind, and will inspire everyone to follow its precepts (including the seven Noahide commandments for the Gentiles). But most importantly, he will teach everyone how to elevate the world and, as we say in the prayer 'Alenu thrice daily' cause even the evil people to recognize and turn to the Creator and 'Fix the world with the awareness of the Almighty".
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. Then even one more good deed, word or even thought …….. can tilt the scales and bring..
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