Make Your Torah Like The Desert

Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Parshas Bamidbar

This week's parsha begins, “And the Lord spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai , in the tent of meeting" (Num.1:1).

We may ask why it says "in the desert?" We know that the Tent of Meeting was in the desert. An answer is given in a Midrash which says that only when we are like a desert, which is hefker [free for the taking], will we be able to absorb Torah.

I learned this Midrash as a child, but recently realized that I did not understand properly what it meant. How are we supposed to become like a desert? Become hot and grow cacti? Dwelling further on it and supported by some commentators, perhaps it could be taken as follows.

The point about a desert being hefker is that you can do what you like in a desert: dig a ditch, build a wall or a motel, or whatever. If you try to do the same thing in my backyard, even if you think it is an improvement, I can stop you.

Something which prevents people from being receptive to Torah values is the trait of being a kapdan, which roughly means, fussy, rigid, and unaccommodating. People with this trait cannot study, for instance, unless they are seated at their own desk, their room is air-conditioned, they had a good breakfast, and happen to be in the right mood.

But in order to absorb the Torah it is necessary to be the opposite, adaptable and accommodating, like the desert.

In Pirke Avos (6:4) it is written, "This is the way of the Torah: eat bread with salt, drink measured amounts of water, sleep on the bare ground and live a life of hardship, while you toil in Torah study. If you do this -you wil be happy in this world, and it will be well with you in the world to come."

There seems to be two problems with this advice. Firstly, it does not seem to be a recipe for happiness, at least in this world. Second, most Torah scholars I know (for example) do not sleep on the bare ground.

To help solve these problems, let me tell you a true story about Rabbi Gifter, the great Rosh Yeshiva of the Telzer Yeshiva in Cleveland .

A student of his was having a running battle with his wife regarding who should take out the garbage. The student asserted that, according to halacha, it was beneath his dignity (he being a Torah scholar) to take out the garbage. This did not satisfy the wife (understandably), and so they decided o take their problem to R. Gifter.

After listening to them, he said, "Look, I cannot decide this. Go home and sort it out yourselves." This was on Wednesday afternoon. The following Friday morning, the couple, with their conflict still unresolved, were preparing for Shabbos. Suddenly there was a knock at the door. It was R. Gifter, who announced to the startled couple, "I"ve come to take out your garbage."

I was recently reading the great book of letters by the Steipler Rav, Karyana D'Igraasa. In one of these letters, he was responding to some one who had listed some of his problems. It should be emphasized that the Steipler was not one to make light of other people's problems. But at the end of his three-page response, in which he considered each problem in detail, he wrote, "But do you want to know what your real problem is? In your letter, you used the word "I" six times."

The Steipler was pointing out that the real hindrance to this correspondent's happiness was his anochius [egotism]. The Mishna quoted in Pirke Avos is not saying that we should choose to sleep on the floor (etc.). It is saying that we should not be wedded inflexibly to our creature comforts. If we have them, fine, we can enjoy them - there's nothing wrong with that. But if we should have to give these things up, we should be sufficiently flexible, sufficiently accommodating, to do so with equanimity, like a desert.

In this way, we can adapt our lives to Torah values and find happiness in this world.