The Opportunities and Perils of Environment
by Rabbi Duvie Nachbar
The organization of Machaneh Yisrael forged and created bonds and alliances between various constituents of Klal Yisrael that shaped the future spiritual development of those sectors. The juxtaposition of tribes and families next to one another and the friendships that resulted from that proximity played an influential role in molding the spiritual character of various segments of Klal Yisrael. The Pesukim inform us that the family of Kehat camped along the southern edge of the Mishkan (Bemidbar 3:29). The tribes of Reuven, Shimon, and Gad dwelled along the southern perimeter of the camp, neighboring the family of Kehat (2:10). Moshe, Aharon, and their respective families resided along the eastern side of the Mishkan (3:38), while the tribes of Yehudah, Yissachar, and Zevulun camped along the neighboring eastern perimeter. The bonds of neighborly friendship that were fostered between these tribes proved to be destructive in one instance and productive in the other. Rashi, citing the Midrash Tanchuma, quotes the well known aphorisms, “Oy LaRasha VeOy LeShcheino” and “Tov LaTzaddik VeTov LeShcheino.” The partnership between Korach and his following with Dattan, Aviram and the two hundred and fifty members of the tribe of Reuven led to the latter half’s demise. On the other hand, the influence of Moshe and Aharon propelled the members of the tribes of Yehudah, Yissachar, and Zevulun to ascend and excel in Torah scholarship.
The influence and persuasion of one’s surrounding environment is one factor that helps chart the trajectory of one’s spiritual growth and development. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (1:7) cites the instructions of Nitai HaArbeili to “Distance oneself from a Shachein Ra (bad neighbor),” and to avoid befriending a wicked individual. The Rambam, in his Peirush HaMishnayot, explains that an individual is prone to adopt and to inculcate the repugnant ways of a spiritually and morally corrupt society. One should distance oneself from a degenerative society in order to avoid the harmful and injurious effects of living in such an environment.
The inherent danger of being enveloped in a spiritually and morally corrupt society lies not only in the long term ill effects of that society on the individual, but additionally in the immediate connection and association with degenerate partners. Avot DeRabbi Natan (30:3) records the saying of Rabbi Akiva that one should not cling to violators of Torah since punishment will be inescapable even if one never mimics their ways. Conversely, one should cling to practitioners of Mitzvot since reward will be forthcoming even if one never adopts their practices. The Meiri (Commentary on Avot 1:7) explains that the very bond of friendship that is fostered with these individuals is itself punishable in the former instance and laudable in the latter case. Irrespective of the long term repercussions of such alliances, the decision alone to associate and align oneself with a particular group or individual is significant and revealing. Alternatively, even if a decision to partner with and befriend a certain individual isn’t itself flawed or worthy of praise, one’s inclusion within a particular group might necessitate and carry with it a degree of responsibility by one’s mere representation within the group. Rabbeinu Yonah (Commentary on Avot 1:7) claims that by dint of one’s membership within a particular society one obtains a degree of shared responsibility for both the Mitzvot and Aveirot performed by that same group.
The opportunity for religious growth and the danger of spiritual regression should be a weighty factor in our decision making regarding community, Shuls, schools, and friendships. As well, the responsibility to contribute toward and help shape and elevate one’s surrounding environment should be carefully considered and sought after.
by Nachi Farkas
The first Pasuk of Parshat Bamidbar says that Hashem spoke to Moshe in Midbar Sinai. The Midrash teaches that the Torah is compared to three natural elements: water, fire, and sand. Rabbi Eliezer Kahan wonders: why is the Torah is compared to these three elements?
An answer may be that important aspects of a Torah lifestyle are embodied by these three elements. Water nourishes everything around it and will always flow to the lowest point that it can reach. Similarly, Jews must try to help everyone around them in a humble way. Chazal teach that giving charity humbly and secretly is better than giving openly. Flames of a fire, while illuminating their surroundings, constantly reach higher. Jews must also be a “light unto the nations” and always strive to be better people. While these two elements are very important aspects in Torah, neither of the two is sufficient. Rather, one must also be like sand, which contains both aspects. Despite the fact that it is usually grounded, sand still reaches heights (through sandstorms). By knowing the positive elements of fire and water we can recognize the important qualities of sand, and the Torah is therefore compared to all three. If we act like sand and remain grounded and humble, while at the same time reaching higher, we will be able to nurture and illuminate everything around us.
Desert of Torah
by Benjy Lebowitz
The first Pasuk of Sefer Bamidbar reads “Vaydabeir Hashem El Moshe BeMidbar Sinai,” “And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai…” The words “in the wilderness of Sinai” indicate that Hashem intentionally chose to deliver His Torah to us in a desert. Why did Hashem choose to give us the Torah in a desert as opposed to an inhabited land, such as Eretz Yisrael?
The Mechilta in Parshat Beshalach answers that if the Torah would have been given in Eretz Yisrael, the inhabitants of the land would claim that they have a special relationship to the Torah. Since Hashem spoke to us in a desert, a place to which everyone enjoys free and equal access, every Jew has an equal connection to the Torah and its commandments.
Another answer is that when Hashem was looking for a proper place to give His Torah to Bnei Yisrael, He contemplated the Red Sea. However, as it says in Tehillim (114:3) “HaYam Raah VaYanos,” “The sea saw, and fled.” The sea could not face the Shechina, the divine presence, because the idol Baal Tzefon that the Mitztrim worshiped stood at its edge. Hashem also considered the mountains as a site for the giving of the Torah, but, as it says in Tehillim (114:4) “HeHarim Rakedu KeEilim,” “The mountains skipped away like rams.” The mountains were not a legitimate site because Avodah Zarah had been placed on their summits. Only the wilderness was a worthy site. It could receive Hashem without fear or shame, because it was unblemished by any stain of Avodah Zarah. The Midbar was therefore chosen for the site of Matan Torah.
A third answer is that Matan Torah took place in the wilderness is to teach us that we have to become like a wilderness. Civilization, with its material comforts and luxuries, is the opposite of a desert. While it is important to live in comfort, a Jew must be prepared to sacrifice some of these material luxuries for the Torah.
Yerushalayim, the City of Unity
by Doniel Sherman
In the first two Perakim of this week’s Parsha, Bnei Yisrael’s camping arrangement is described in great detail. This seems unusual because the Torah writes only what is applicable to future generations. Why would it use two full Perakim to describe a message applicable only to the generation of the Midbar?
The Gerrer Rebbe notes that a large amount of space is also used to describe the construction of the Mishkan, an impermanent structure. He explains that the Mishkan was built to allow Hashem’s presence to dwell amongst Bnei Yisrael. He further explains that only through following the minute details of Hashem’s instructions could we build the Mishkan and become closer to Him. This explains the necessity of the lengthy descriptions of the camping arrangement. The camping arrangement furthers the message of following Hashem’s commands in order to grow closer to Him.
Rav Amital, a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion, offers an additional reason to explain the length at which the camping arrangement is written. Bnei Yisrael were comprised of twelve semi-nations, the twelve tribes. They all camped separately, yet were held together by the Mishkan and the Aron HaKodesh. This point is clearly demonstrated by Bnei Yisrael’s camping on all four sides of the Mishkan. Rav Amital explains that Bnei Yisrael needed to understand that they were one, collective nation before they entered Eretz Yisrael; and although Bnei Yisrael would be a diverse people in Eretz Yisrael, they must still be unified by their common adherence to the principles shown by the Aron HaKodesh. If Bnei Yisrael were united, then the Shechina would rest with them.
The time of the second Beit HaMikdash represented greater national unity than that of the first Beit HaMikdash. In the days of the first Beit HaMikdash, Bnei Yisrael did not work together in their service to Hashem (as seen by the Korbanot that individuals brought outside the Beit HaMikdash). During the second Beit Hamikdash, the ideal unity existed. Upon the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash, the unity unraveled due to Sinat Chinam. Yerushalayim and the Beit HaMikdash, the symbols of our singularity, were destroyed. Although we don’t have the Beit HaMikdash today, Yerushalayim still serves as the center of our Jewish identity. We always face Yerushalayim when we daven and we ask Hashem daily for it to be rebuilt. In 1967, when Israel regained Yerushalayim, every Jew felt somewhat connected to the recaptured city.
This past Friday was Yom Yerushalayim. We need to joyfully appreciate that we currently possess Yerushalayim, the center of modern Jewish unity. Yet, we also need to realize that until the third Beit HaMikdash is built, we must feel a sense of loss in lacking Yerushalayim in her former, total glory