The Biblical Campus in the Wilderness

The virtually carefree life on a college campus can sometimes appear like paradise on Earth. The communal living arrangements, intense social and intellectual engagement with peers, lack of inhibitions and boundaries, oracle like pronouncements by professors and mocking of the world outside the preserve of the campus, create an almost intoxicating atmosphere.

Is it any wonder that some would entertain socialism and the false promise of being taken care of in a manner that seemingly replicates the womb-like experience of the college campus? In contrast the real world seems so daunting, replete with risks, challenges and demands for individual achievement. Of course, there are also opportunities for personal development, refinement, accomplishment and success; but does that outweigh the less demanding and more collegial environment of the campus?

In this week’s Torah portion[i], we read about a wonderful college-like campus in the wilderness and the sobering lesson of a group of misguided individuals, who didn’t want to leave its warm embrace. They were led by ten of the so-called Spies sent by Moses to tour the ancient Land of Israel. Their decision not to embrace their life mission and instead balk at the opportunity had devastating consequences for their entire generation. It provides us with a timeless message about life, which resonates to this day.

In their campus in the wilderness, the Jewish people were fully involved in studying and acquiring the knowledge and wisdom embodied in the Torah. They were able to devote themselves to study, without outside interruption or concerns about making a living, where their next meal[ii] might come from or how to house and clothe[iii] themselves. They had an extraordinary teacher, Moses, an incredible person and scholar, who was schooled by G-d. Moses was humble and had an enormous capacity for patience and forgiveness. He was willing to engage day and night and, divinely inspired, he truly understood the issues posed to him by his students. He was the perfect teacher, and, hence the appellation, Moses, our teacher[iv]. The Jewish people were also protected by miraculous security, in their wilderness campus. By day, there were the clouds of glory and, by night, the pillar of fire[v]. All right, college teachers are not in the same league as Moses and campus security doesn’t compare, but it’s still somewhat analogous.

Why leave this seemingly perfect world? What bliss, to be able to live and study under G-d’s protection and indulgence, in the cocoon of the campus of the wilderness? As the Chidushe HaRim[vi] notes, the choice presented to the Spies was to give this up, join the real world and become farmers. How then to maintain these wonderful spiritual qualities, which now had to compete for attention with the mundane challenges of life and earning a living? Is it any wonder that ten[vii] of the Spies demurred? However, they not only made this decision for themselves personally, they were also elitists, who arrogantly presumed to decide for everyone else. They offered that the people were better suited to their current circumstances on the dole, rather than being tested by life and having to overcome its challenges, while still preserving their spirituality.

They did not appreciate the nobility of integrating the spiritual and physical, through being involved in a combination of Torah study and a worldly occupation. The Land of Israel offered the wonderful opportunity to live and thrive employing this model. The campus in the wilderness experience was no substitute for life in the real world. It was a school with a curriculum providing for a fully immersive learning experience, designed to inculcate the Jewish people with this Torah model of life. Like college, generally, it was not an end in and of itself, but a way station, where much could be learned, as a prelude to beginning life’s journey.

They were no longer slaves to man and dependent on handouts; they were now servants only to G-d. This meant they were supposed to strive to be self-sufficient and, thus, more intimately recognize the often hidden hand of divine providence at work in facilitating success. It was not about being reliant on just another handout, albeit a miraculous one. However, they profoundly misunderstood this lesson.

Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerondi[viii] echoes this perspective on the sojourn at the campus in the wilderness[ix]. This is in contrast to his exposition on our life’s mission, as expressed in Ecclesiastes[x], which states that wisdom is good when it is coupled with an inheritance. Rabbi Yonah Yonah explains this means all Torah that is not coupled with work is ultimately lost and causes sin. He postulates that if a person does not earn sustenance by the labor of his or her own hands, then the situation causes a person to love gifts. The person will necessarily have to fawn on others and even fool them to obtain money to sustain this indolent lifestyle. Rabbenu Yonah[xi] also ascribes a psychological aspect to this dictum. He notes that reliance on others for support is extremely demeaning. Thus, not being self-supporting has a devastating effect on the person, because it destroys the person’s self-esteem. Indeed, the Talmud[xii] urges a person to flay carcasses in the marketplace to earn a living and not assume airs and believe that too refined to do this kind of work. Work provides a sense of dignity and self-worth. Said another way those who love life disdain having to rely on handouts[xiii].

The modern incarnation of the flawed ethic of the Spies appears to be embodied in socialism, although it is a less subtle and more callous version. It is similarly preached by some elitist leaders, who believe that people are just fundamentally incapable of coping with life on their own. It enslaves people by offering them no alternative to taking a handout. Socialism, though, is not a miraculous and divinely provided dole. It is accomplished by people forcibly taking from some, purportedly for the purpose of satisfying everyone else’s needs. That it fails to meet its promise is a separate discussion. It also crushes the human spirit, eschewing innovation and individual achievement and instead enforcing uniformity.

Leading a meaningful life requires a sense of being productive. Rav Ovadiah of Bartenura[xiv] elaborates on this theme and explains that loving work means being involved in it, even if economically self-sufficient and don’t need to do so, financially.

The Talmud[xv] also expresses this ethic in positive and cogent terms[xvi]. It explains how good it is for someone to be self-sustaining and earn a livelihood by stint of his or her own efforts. As Psalms[xvii] poignantly states, when you eat of the fruit of your own hands, you will be happy and it will be well with you.

Maimonides[xviii] advises that a person should work and do the utmost not to become a public charge. He counsels that even an honored sage should be involved in a craft, even a degrading one[xix]. The key is not to rely on others for support; rather it is a great attribute to be self-supportive[xx]. He records that many great Sages were woodcutters, carriers of planks, drawers of water, ironworkers and charcoal makers. Therefore, the Sages commanded don’t ask for or accept community support. This does not mean that there is no ongoing need to study Torah. Every Jew, no matter what their station in life, is obligated to set aside time to be involved in Torah study[xxi], during the day and at night[xxii]. Maimonides also cautions[xxiii] a person not to believe that can first make money and then have the time to devote to learning Torah. Torah must be studied at regularly fixed times each day and that too is a priority. This model that balances work with regular daily fixed times for Torah study is the ideal. Thus, it’s important to combine both in an orderly fashion so that mutually supporting. Indeed, as noted above, they are symbiotic, in terms of nurturing the physical (including mental) health of the person and the spiritual health of the soul.

The experiences of the Spies and the campus in the wilderness offer us a valuable insight into the dangers of an effete lifestyle reliant on the kindness of others. The pursuit of the spiritual is not limited to a campus like enclosure. It is a lifelong endeavor, best coupled with a worldly occupation and in the warm embrace of family. Self-sufficiency and the noble exercise of our free will are a fundamental part of how we can best achieve spiritual perfection.

In contrast, the fantasy of socialism and its false promise of an easy life are not the answer. Reliance on collectives, communes, cooperatives or government purporting to guarantee the perfect life, without personal risk or obligation, is misplaced. It is also foolhardy to maintain a lifestyle dependent on gifts or promises of unearned largess. There should be no buffers, politicians impersonating demigods, government monoliths or soulless bureaucracies that separate us from a direct relationship with G-d and realizing our personal destinies.

The generation that grew up after the sinful Spies understood there are no guarantees in life and there comes a time when a person just has to seize the day, do good and have faith in G-d. May we all be blessed with G-d’s grace and much success in our life’s journey.

[i] Parshat Shelach, Numbers, Chapters 12-13.

[ii] There was the miraculous manna from heaven (Deuteronomy 6:7) and the travelling well (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit, at page 9a).

[iii] Deuteronomy 8:4.

[iv] Moshe Rabbeinu.

[v] Exodus 13:21

[vi] Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, a 19th century Talmudic scholar and the first Gerrer Rebbe, in his Chidushei HaRim commentary on Parshat Shelach, pages 206-209.                   .

[vii] Only Joshua and Caleb were spared (Numbers 14:30).

[viii] A 13th Century commentator on the Bible and Halachic authority.

[ix] See his commentary on Exodus 13:17 (subsections 7 and 8).

[x] See his commentary on Ecclesiastes 7:11.

[xi] In his commentary on Avot 3:17.

[xii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, at page 113a.

[xiii] As it states in Proverbs, 15:27, but the one who hates gifts shall live.

[xiv] A 15th Century Rabbi and commentator on the Mishna, in his commentary on Avot 1:10.

[xv] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 8a. It reports that Rabbi Chiya, the son of Ami, stated in the name of Ulla, that greater is the one who derives benefit (i.e.: of earning a livelihood) from the labor of his own hands than one who fears heaven and derives benefit (i.e.: his sustenance) from others. This teaching is derived from the Verse in Psalms (128:2) that if eat by the labor of your own hands, you will be happy and it will be good for you. The double phrasing of happy and good for you is interpreted to mean that you will be happy in this world and it will be good for you in the world to come. See also Tractate Gittin, at page 67b, where it reports that Rav Sheshes would engage in carrying beams and say great is work because it warms the one doing it.

[xvi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 8a is cited by Rabbeinu Yonah in support of his thesis.

[xvii] Psalms, 128:2.

[xviii] Maimonides, Hilchot Matnot Aniyim, 10:18.

[xix] Maimonides cites the language of the Talmud that it is: a) better to treat Shabbos like an ordinary weekday than accept support from others (see Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, at page 112a, where this is reported in the name of Rabbi Akiva); and b) to skin dead animals in the marketplace, rather than say he is a sage deserving of public support (see Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, at page 113a).

[xx] Hilchot Talmud Torah, 3:11.

[xxi] Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:1.

[xxii] Maimonides cites Joshua 1:8, in support of his position. The Verse states that a person shall meditate on it (the Torah), day and night.

[xxiii] Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:7.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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