Emulating the Desert – Yitz Grossman

Posted by Yitz Grossman.

“And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai desert”: Anyone who does not make himself ownerless like the desert cannot acquire wisdom or Torah, and therefore it says, “… in the Sinai desert” (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7).

A hefker object is one of such little value to its owner that he formally abandons it and makes it available to all. Let us consider what is meant by making oneself hefker.
One must be prepared to forsake, if necessary, all worldly pleasures for the sake of Torah (see commentary of the Maharzav to the Midrash). “Torah can only be preserved in one who kills himself for it” (Sotah 21a). As the Mishnah says in Pirkei Avos (6:4):

This is the way of Torah: Eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure, sleep on the ground, and live a life of deprivation – but toil in the Torah! If you do this, “You are praiseworthy and all is well with you.” You are “praiseworthy” in this world, “and all is well with you” – in the World to Come.

Material deprivation may not be a necessary condition for learning Torah, but only one who is prepared to forego every pleasure and comfort for his Torah learning will ever achieve a deep understanding of Torah.

The true student of Torah must be as obsessed with Torah, as the lover with his beloved (see commentary of Rashash to the above Midrash; Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvah 10:6). Just as the lover’s thoughts are always of the beloved, so, too, one who truly wishes to plumb the depths of Torah cannot make his learning contingent on time, place or circumstance. Only when one feels that the Torah alone gives meaning to his life, will he be able to forego all other comforts and pleasures for its sake.

After relating that Bnei Yisrael came to Sinai, the Torah repeats itself and says that they left Refidim and came to Sinai. From this repetition, Chazal learn that just as they came to Sinai in repentance, so did they leave Refidim in repentance. Bnei Yisrael were attacked by Amalek at Refidim precisely because of their weakness in Torah learning. After that attack, they might have reasoned that Refidim was not spiritually conducive to teshuvah and waited until they reached Sinai to strengthen themselves in repentance.

The Torah emphatically negates such an attitude. If a person waits for the perfect time or place to undertake a new course in Torah, that ideal moment or place will never materialise. Had they not done teshuvah in Refidim, they would not have done teshuvah in the Sinai desert either.

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