Shabbat Parashat Bamidbar| 5764
The Desert - A Good Place or a Bad One?Harav Moshe Ehrenreich
The sefer we are now starting has several names. R. Chanina B. Gamliel (Sota 36a) refers to it as Sefer Hapekudim (The Book of Countings). Rashi (ad loc.) calls it Sefer Vay’daber, based on its first word. And, of course, it is generally referred to as Sefer Bamidbar. The first name is related to important events that transpired within the book (two censuses) and the second is largely technical. Is the name “Bamidbar” (in the desert) taken from one of the first words of the sefer or does it explain that the fact that the events discussed took place in the desert had an effect on the development of Am Yisrael. Indeed, the Ramban and Abarbanel, in their introductions to Bamidbar, talk, respectively, of “the commandments they received when they were located in the desert” and “the book tells of how the nation was led while in the desert.” So let us deal briefly with the nature of the desert and how Hashem and Bnei Yisrael related to it.
Bnei Yisrael complained: “Why did you bring us to this bad place?” (Bamidbar 20:5). The Torah describes it as: “the vast and fearful desert of snake, serpent, and scorpion and thirst without water” (Devarim 8:15). In Ha’azinu, it is referred to as “desolation, a howling wilderness” (Devarim 32:10). On the other hand, the desert is the place that Hashem chose to give the Torah, and not by chance. Midrash Tanchuma (Bamidbar 2) relates: “Hashem said: ‘This desert is better than all of the countries. Here I will build a guesthouse.’” While the Torah was given to be implemented in its highest form in Eretz Yisrael, it needed to be given specifically in the midbar, by those who ate the miraculous food (man). Being in the situation of clear, total reliance on Hashem to provide sustenance created a constant connection between the nation and their Maker and the resulting fear of Heaven needed to receive the Torah.
Hashem asked Bnei Yisrael: “Have I been like a desert for Yisrael or a land of great darkness?” (Yirmiya 2:31). Chazal explained that Hashem was stressing how different their experience in the midbar was from what they could have expected. They could have expected a stressful stay, butthey were able to feel like kings in a palace (Bamidbar Rabba 1:2).The desert is indeed, objectively, a bad place. But for them, it turned into a “guesthouse of Hashem.”
“ ‘Who is this who is going up (olah)from the desert’- its elevation is from the desert; its removal is from the desert; its death is from the desert” (Shir Hashirim Rabba 8:2). The word olah can be translated as going up or being removed from. The decree, “in this desert they will cease and there they will die” (Bamidbar 14:35), refers to the weeding out of the generation of the midbar and the bad practices which they brought with them from Egypt. However, the “presents” which that group received, including the Torah, the spiritual kingdom created, and the mishkan which was founded in the desert and developed into the Beit Hamikdash, were eternal gifts for all subsequent generations.
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