King Zedekiah would take a month each year to visit his subjects around the country. He would often enter beautiful, prosperous cities, only to receive a very poor reception. The moment the people would hear of his arrival, they would stay home and avoid being seen by the king and his entourage. This would happen time and again, whenever he would enter areas with financially robust marketplaces. And then, on occasion, he would enter a one-horse town, and he would be swarmed by throngs of people seeking to shake his hand and take a proverbial selfie with him. Why did the prosperous citizenry stay home, while the backwater residents could not get enough of the king?
The answer is simple: it’s all about the taxes. The rich provinces figured that there’s only one reason the king would be visiting. He was there to inspect local business and determine how he could fill the national coffers. The less endowed locales, by contrast, had nothing to fear. The king certainly wasn’t visiting them to exact higher taxes; on the contrary, they were barely able to meet the current demands. If he was here, undoubtedly, the objective of the visit was to inspect the town’s current infrastructure and hopefully to improve their situation.
תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן, וְאֵיזוֹ הִיא רְשׁוּת הָרַבִּים? סְרַטְיָא וּפְלַטְיָא גְּדוֹלָה, וּמְבוֹאוֹת הַמְפוּלָּשִׁין — זוֹ הִיא רְשׁוּת הָרַבִּים גְּמוּרָה
The Rabbis taught: What is the public domain? A main street and a large plaza as well as open alleyways. This is a full-fledged public domain.
תַּנְיָא: אֵיזוֹ הִיא רְשׁוּת הָרַבִּים? — סְרַטְיָא וּפְלַטְיָא גְּדוֹלָה, וּמְבוֹאוֹת הַמְפוּלָּשִׁין, וְהַמִּדְבָּר! אָמַר אַבָּיֵי: לָא קַשְׁיָא, כָּאן בִּזְמַן שֶׁיִּשְׂרָאֵל שְׁרוּיִין בַּמִּדְבָּר. כָּאן בִּזְמַן הַזֶּה
It was taught in a baraisa: What is the public domain? A main street, and a large plaza, and open alleyways, and the desert. Abaye said: These two sources are not in conflict. Here, where it enumerated the desert among the public domains, it refers to the time when the Israelites were dwelling in the desert. And the other case refers to nowadays.
כאן בזמן שישראל שרויין במדבר – משמע קצת דאינה ר”ה אלא א”כ מצויין שם ששים רבוא כמו במדבר
Tosfos: This refers to the time when the Israelites were dwelling in the desert – It implies somewhat that an area is only counted as a public domain if six hundred thousand people are present, as they were in the desert.
Our nation was defined through the sojourn in the desert. During that time, we matured from being lowly slaves to becoming children of the Almighty. An important aspect of the defining of our national identity during that period was the delineation of a sizable populace as consisting of 600,000 people. Such a crowd would constitute a public gathering and their space would become the definition of a public domain for Shabbat and other areas of Jewish life.
The Torah and the Children of Israel are intrinsically connected. Our Sages teach that ‘Yisrael’ may be read as an acronym: “Yesh Shishim Ribo Osios laTorah” – There are (figuratively speaking) 600,000 letters in the Torah, corresponding to the number of Israelites who sojourned through the desert.
Why did we attain nationhood and enter the Divine covenant in the desert? The Aish Tamid explains the importance of the desert setting based upon the Midrash of King Zedekiah. In the desert, there’s not much going on. So when the King of all Kings appears, the people show up to greet Him. Had Hashem offered us the Torah in a thriving metropolis, we’d have been too busy to care about a Divine reception.
The desert serves as an eternal reminder of the way we must view our relationship with Torah and mitzvos. If our Judaism is just something we get to when we have a spare moment in our busy lives, we’ll never achieve the spiritual prosperity we hope for. If we want to achieve spiritual success, we need to run out to greet the King and embrace His message.
How do you view your Judaism? Does it feel like Heaven has placed unnecessary taxation upon your life?
How does one avoid paying taxes? Actually, you cannot avoid taxes, but with a good accountant, you can minimize the burden. Likewise, if you view the mitzvos as taxes, you’ll probably find yourself a rabbi (or internet site…) that can help minimize the spiritual taxation ‘burden’. Why would you be looking to do anything more for your Judaism than is absolutely necessary? After all, you’ve got so many other important things going on in your life!
But when you understand that Torah and our people are intrinsically connected, you realize that the King’s coffers are your coffers. Your personal metropolis that was established in the desert is built upon the foundation of Torah. Every ‘tax’ you pay strengthens the spiritual and material city you are building. You don’t need to worry about paying unnecessary taxes – as a Divine prince or princess, you are the direct beneficiary of all the added spiritual wealth, with abundant reward in this world and in the next. Every mitzvah is an opportunity to increase the treasure in the Divine coffers and you are a shareholder in that wealth!
Mitzvos are not taxes. They are investments, investments in your spiritual portfolio, an account that only ever goes up. May you merit to find a mentor who can help guide you to maximize your spiritual investments!