Feel free to print this out and read it over Shabbos, just please not during Tefilos!
This week, we begin to read from Sefer BaMidbar. As we set out in the beginning of the Sefer the Jews are counted, placed in formation and begin to travel towards Eretz Yisrael. The whole book details these journeys.
The first Passuk says, “Va’Yidaber Hashem El Moshe B’Midbar Sinai” – ‘And God spoke to Moshe Rabbeinu in the Sinai Desert’. Chazal come and focus in on the specificity of the location. Why does the Torah HaKedosha find a need to frame this communication between HaKadosh Baruch Hu and Moshe Rabbeinu within the context of Midbar Sinai?
In response to this, the Midrash lays down a fundamental concept in spiritual growth. Communication with the Divine only comes in the desert. More expressly, depth and connection to the spiritual are only made available to those who make themselves Hefker, uncontrolled and unowned like a desert. A desert is a free, non-dominated place, and only a person who maintains such a headspace will enter into spiritual greatness.
This is not just a spiritual reality; it’s physical as well. Says the Rambam, when a person is feeling subjugated and overwhelmed by his surroundings, when the culture is preventing one from attaining purity and holiness – the place to escape to is the desert. There he will find the opportunity to really develop.
We know that the name of any given object, anywhere and anything in the universe, is completely defined by its name. An object’s title characterizes its essence. Based on this, and in light of the above, we should walk away with pretty good feelings as to what the Midbar, and therefore Sefer BaMidbar represents.
But there is another side to the story. Because when we look through the stories of Sefer BaMidbar we only see failures. Korach, the spies, the harlots of Midyan among many other shortcomings poke out their ugly heads specifically in Sefer BaMidbar. What happened?! What happened to all of the idealistic symbolism that the Midbar represented? The liberated thinking, the being Hefker that creates inspiration in the mind and heart – shouldn’t the Jewish people only get it right during their journeys there?
In order to answer in one possible way, we need to gain a deeper insight into exactly what it is that drives us to make mistakes and fall prey to the pitfalls laid for us by the Yetzer HaRa, the Evil Inclination.
Let’s work backwards. By understanding how we are taught to deal with the Yetzer HaRa, we will be able to retroactively shed light on what exactly it is that we’re up against. For this we have the famous words of Chazal. Hashem says, Barasi Yetzer HaRa, Barasi Torah Tavlin - I have created the evil inclination, and I’ have created the Torah as its spice.
The learning of Torah, the dissemination of the will of Hashem from an abstract concept into part of my very being, learning that which I need to make Avodas HaBoreih a real part of my life… that’s the remedy to the snares of the Yetzer HaRa. The adaptation of my desires to His will be the only way to not lose that battle.
But if this is so, then why is the term for the Torah’s role a Tavlin, a spice to the Yetzer Hara? Hashem created the Torah HaKedosha as a means of spicing up my baser drives? That’ the purpose? The line shouldn’t use Tavlin, rather we would expect to hear radically different terminology. ‘I created the Evil Inclination and I created Torah to vanquish, kill, destroy – take your pick – behead it. What in the world are we being told when Chazal say that Torah is the spice to the Yetzer HaRa. A spice makes things more palatable, not non-existent!
The following answer was given over by Rav Michael Hershkovitz Shlit’a in the name of Rav Tzadok HaKohen MiLublin.
We are born small and we grow up to become bigger. We come bigger physically and emotionally. In a different way we also become bigger spiritually. Hashem makes a space between us and Him. He pulls back in such a way that we don’t see Him openly. We look around and His presence is not obvious to the naked eye. Why? It’s because God wants us to take this ‘empty space’ and do something amazing. He gives us wiggle-room so that we can grow. By making Himself less obvious we can work on our Emunah and we can be Mekadesh this world, make it more holy by bringing His Message and His Pressence into that space. He pulls back so that we can make something of ourselves… He pulls back so that we can become big.
But the Yetzer HaRa’s job is to convince us to misuse that space. He wants us to get really big too. Bloated. Inflated. It can be our stomachs or our personalities. With this gap made by God, we can be tricked into forgetting Him altogether - making ourselves ‘big’ in lots of other ways. We expand our egos; we allow our lowly desires to run totally amuck. We get really big. God gives us an open playing field – namely this world - and we can either make it or break it. With the empty space given to us it’s a simple fact that we will grow. The question then becomes which part of us will be developed. Will we go out of our way to increase our purity? Will we try to become massive Tzadikim and Gedolei HaDor? To become Something bigger than our earthly bodies? Or will we become, Chas V’Shalom victims of the Yetzer HaRa and make ourselves bigger in less ideal ways.
This is where the Torah comes in. We all feel that natural tendency to become big in a selfish way. This is, as we explained, is the tactic of our evil inclination. The Torah comes as a Tavlin, a spice to slightly rectify, to take that desire to grow and make it more palatable, make it sweeter. It’s simply a nuanced redirection. To take my ego’s desire to take advantage of that empty wiggle room, that open field, and channel it to something higher, something loftier and more refined. This is why Torah is a spice to the evil inclination and not a deathblow. We are taking an inherently powerful tool (the desire to grow) and putting it in its proper place.
The Midbar is that concept of empty space taken to the extreme. The desert, very much like the mind of a person is a Tabula Rasa - a blank slate, an absence of preconceived ideas or predetermined goals, just blankness for as far as the eye can see. The ability to plumb the depth of the significance of the Divine-wiggle-room that makes us or breaks us is most accentuated in the context of the Midbar. It itself is that space.
It is specifically here that the Rambam sends a person to go to recreate and reinvent himself. The clean backdrop of the desert comes to give a person the option to reanalyze what to do with the wiggle-room that God gave him. And thus a person who makes himself Hefker like the Midbar - meaning he takes no personal, no biased, tainted claim over that space, rather he lets the presence of He who truly owns everything enter in and direct his growth - “La’Hashem HaAretz Umlo’ah”, To Hashem does the land all and that fills it belong – only that person has the gates of growth, depth, spiritually and (most importantly for this discussion) greatness opened to him.
But as the potential for growth exponentially increases in the desert – so does it’s capability for that power going awry dangerously increase as well. And lo and behold, we see the Jews time and time again make these mistakes throughout Sefer Bamidbar. All the problems that we are going to encounter over the course of the following Parshios come as a result of the inherit dangers that the Midbar offers. For as the gap between us and Him grows – our ability to fill it with our egos grows as well.
We don’t have to look around to far to see many, many people who may have fallen into this trap. God lays out the world in front of us and says that it’s ours for the taking. HaKadosh Baruch Hu says, ‘There’s nothing that’s out of your reach. Pretend like I’m not here. In fact, I’ll hide to make that easier. Okay, now it surely feels like there is no one over your shoulder – whatcha gonna do?”
And so, people take their lives, lives latent with potential and bring it to a world ready for the taking – and then, unfortunately, make all that growth self-oriented - without ever considering a higher cause.
But we are not such people and we need not fall into such a trap. We, the attuned, choose to be aware. We see past the façade of this desert-world of ours. We know that there is a reason that Hashem has given us so much to work with. We have learned before, and will review again the multitude of mistakes that desert-thinking has caused, and we will take from those lessons as to not fall pray to those same mistakes ourselves. It takes time and patience to internalize, but it’s clear – and getting clearer all the time – that this world we live in was built to make us big. Not big in the sense of stomachs and egos rather immense in stature. As Rav Kagan put it so beautifully, ‘We are not responsible for the fact that we are, but we are fully responsible for who we become.’ And with Hashem’s help we’ll become tremendous.
HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us a Bracha of overflowing inspiration to channel our potentials to only the best of uses. If we all as individuals commit ourselves to the highest, loftiest, holiest use of all that Hashem gave us there is no doubt that we will live lives of Simcha and Sheleimus moving closer to the Creator and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!