Rabbi Yakov Haber
Rabbi Yakov Haber

Distance and Closeness

Commenting on the opening passage of Parshat B’Midbar, the Midrash Tanchuma relates:

From here our Sages taught: with three things was the Torah given: with fire with water and in the desert. With fire, as is states (Sh’mot 19:18) “and the entire Mount Sinai was smoking for Hashem had descended upon it in fire..”; with water, as it says (Shof’tim 5:4) “Hashem, as you went out from Sei’ir, when you stepped from Edom, the earth trembled, the heavens dripped, the clouds also dripped water”; in the desert, as it says “[And Hashem spoke to Moshe] in the desert saying” (B’Midbar 1:1). And why was it given with these three things? To teach you that that just as these are free to all in the world, so too Torah is free to all in the world … “In the desert of Sinai” – why in the desert of Sinai? Anyone who does make himself hefkeir (ownerless) like the desert cannot acquire Torah.

Rav C. Y. Goldwicht z”l notes the apparent contradiction between the first half of the Midrash -- which implies Torah’s instant accessibility -- to the second half -- which implies that Torah is inaccessible unless one engages in enormous effort, making himself hefkeir as the desert, an analogy of arduous labor. He answers that the first part of the Midrash refers to learning Torah. This is open to everyone and is easily accessible. The second part refers to making a kinyan on Torah such that the individual is thoroughly suffused with its knowledge, and it transforms his personality. This requires enormous effort and self-sacrifice to accomplish. In the words of Rambam:

Words of Torah do not last in one who is lax in their study and not in those who learn in a pampered state or through [excessive] eating and drinking. [They] only [last] in one who kills himself over them and afflicts his body constantly refusing to slumber... (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:12)

Much has been written concerning the practical application of this Rambam and counterbalancing this directive with health and productivity, but the energy and effort which the Rambam indicates are necessary to "acquire" Torah are striking. A story is told about the author of the K'tzos HaChoshen, R. Aryeh Leib haKohen, that in his early years he was so poor he couldn't afford wood to heat his house in the winter. He used to stay up at night under a heavy blanket holding the inkwell near him so that it wouldn't freeze so that he could write his chidushei Torah. R. Eliyahu of Vilna used to fast days on end until he would be able to comprehend a difficult matter in Torah. On the one hand, Torah is accessible to all; on the other hand, truly plumbing its depths requires enormous effort.

However, even one who merits, through his efforts, great accomplishments in Torah realizes fully that he has just begun to scratch the surface. Chazal refer to Torah as an endless sea reflecting an echo of the infinity of its Author. This duality of accessibility and distance inherent in Torah study perhaps is reflected in the elements referred to in the Midrash. Fire on the one hand is inaccessible. No one can jump into a fire or cross a wall of fire and remain unscathed. On the other hand, we constantly warm ourselves and cook through fire. Water is the main staple of life; one can sail across the ocean but cannot swim across it. Fresh water is drinkable; ocean water is not. Perhaps fresh water ponds, lakes and wells represent the accessible aspects of Torah. These bodies of water are relatively small; there are aspects of Torah we can grasp. The oceans represent the infinity of Torah to which we can access only partially but not fully. The desert also is, on the one hand, foreboding and uninhabitable but can be traversed with proper equipment. The common denominator between fire, water, and the desert is that in all three, through Hashem’s miraculous intervention, became accessible. Avraham Avinu survived the fire; his descendants passed through the Yam Suf and survived in the desert for forty years – all miraculously. To the extent Hashem wills it, even finite Man can have some access to the infinite wisdom reflected in Torah.

A similar duality is expressed in the Parsha concerning the arrangement of the encampment of the Jewish people. The twelve tribes encamped surrounding the Mishkan, the seat of the Divine Presence, but 2,000 amot away, distant but accessible. 2,000 amot represent the t'chum Shabbos, the maximum allowable amount one can walk outside of the city. This distance represents both remoteness and accessibility. On the other hand, the L'viyim encamped right next to the Mishkan. Sheim MiShmuel explains that the former represent the average Jews’ inability to be so close to G-d. The elite, as represented by the L'viyim, are able to camp much closer. Rambam writes (end of Hilchot Sh’mitta V’Yoveil) that any individual can become an "honorary" member of the tribe of Leivi by dedicating his whole life to the study of Hashem's Torah and His service. But even the L’viyim had their boundaries as well and were not to enter the Mishkan or Kodesh Kadashim representing the limits of human access to the Divine.

Thus, nearness and distance are reflected in our Parsha both concerning Torah and proximity to the Sh'china. Of course, the two are inter-related. Chazal teach us (Avot 3:7) that those who learn Torah, the Divine Presence is with them. Our approach to Torah, which is a reflection of the Wisdom of G-d, not surprisingly, directly parallels the arrangement of the camps in the desert representing nearness to Hashem. He and His Torah are paradoxically both near and far, accessible and inaccessible. R. Chaim Volozhin, in Nefesh HaChaim, writes how important it is to occasionally stop one's Torah study to reflect on the fact that one is studying Hashem's infinite wisdom.

Perhaps this duality is also reflected in the Torah's referring to the holiday of Shavuot as the Festival of the First Fruits and the Harvest Festival, but not as the Festival of Mattan Torah. This last theme is very prominent in the Torah Sheb'al Peh (see Shabbos 88a for example). Even the precise date of Matan Torah is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, only that it took place in the third month. On the one hand, Hashem gave us the Torah at that momentous occasion at the beginning of Sivan. We are able to study it and, for those willing, to "acquire" it through enormous effort. On the other hand, the ultimate depths of Torah remain remote, distant and inaccessible, reflecting the infinity of Hashem. The celebration of this very event which gave us partial access to this enormous gift is shrouded in mystery by the Torah itself indicating its fundamentally transcendent nature.

Fortunate are the Children of Israel who were chosen to be the recipients of Torah! Even more fortunate are those who put in the effort to "acquire" it, while fully recognizing its ultimate transcendence!

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