A funny thing happens between chapters 19 and 20 of Bamidbar in this week’s Torah reading. We begin chapter 20 thirty-eight years later than the previous story back in last week’s reading. We almost feel like Rip van Winkle awakening from his 20-year snooze. These are the stagnant punishment years. What was going on during that hiatus in the journey to Eretz Yisrael? Well, it would seem a lot of dying. That would explain why chapter 19 deals with the laws of ritual purity surrounding the status of a dead body. But have no fear, there are many rabbinic sources who find other profound messages embedded in that otherwise macabre chapter.
The great scholar and commentary whose opinion I would like to discuss this week is one that for some reason I’ve been ignoring of late. He is Reb Shalom Noach Berezovsky, the Rebbe of Slonim (1911-2000). This great Chassidic leader wrote a fabulous commentary called the NETVOT SHALOM. Even the name is great: Pathways to Peace. I remember going to hear him lecture a number of times in the 1990’s in his pristine white Beit Medrash building on the periphery of Meah She’arim. I wish that I had the temerity to engage him in conversation. He was eminently approachable, and it was refreshing to see the sprinkling of knitted kipot in the audience of these open shiurim. That kind of mutual respect is missed nowadays.
The Rebbe begins his exposition by quoting a famous Gemara in Berachot: Resh Lakish asked, ‘Whence do we know that Torah scholarship only remains in those who ‘kill’ themselves for it?’ For it says, ‘This is the Torah of one who dies in a tent (Bamidbar 19:14, Berachot 63b)’. Rashi adds, ‘Where is Torah found? In those who die studying in the tents of Torah.’
So, this passage isn’t really discussing the laws of ritual purity surrounding corpses. No, indeed, it is actually telling us about the importance of great effort in the pursuit of Torah insight. By extension, we’re being informed that the generation of the Wilderness were assiduously studying the Torah during those 38 years of encampment. Kadesh Barnea was a massive Kollel.
The Slonimer adds to this famous idea that the entire chapter is hinting at Torah study. When the section begins: This is the law (CHUKAT) of the Torah (verse 2), it means that the whole discussion is about Torah and its study. He then informs us that there are ‘holy books (kabbalistic works)’ that explain that the burning of the red heifer implies a rejection of physical pleasure as a prerequisite for great Torah accomplishment. Again, our chapter is describing the dedication to Torah study during these decades.
This would be a pretty standard description of that time period, if the Rebbe didn’t go on and make two crucial points. First, when a person is dedicated to Torah study, that person becomes the vehicle for Torah in our world. The individual becomes the tent, the receptacle for Torah and its study. Reaching that level of being crowned with Torah requires efforts which are life changing. He explains that this is essence of the first blessing on Torah study: LA’ASOK (to become totally involved) in the words of Torah.
Secondly, the Rebbe elucidates that this person who has become a mobile ‘tent of Torah’ can now face the physical realities of our world, while remaining true to Torah principles. To help us understand this idea, he asks how could David HaMelech request to always be a presence in the House of God (Tehillim 27:4)? Here is the critical quote from the Rebbe: Apparently, how is it possible to remain in the house of God all the days of our lives? In fact, the world is a physical world of action, and each person is required to go, as well, to one’s place of business, which is outside the House of God. Therefore, the essence of David’s request is that he himself should become a mobile House of God.
The Rebbe is very clear. There is a requirement of involvement in the world. We must, however, prepare for that interaction with intense Torah study and preparation. The goal is to encounter the world, but on the Torah’s terms.
The Rebbe describes the term BAMIDBAR, ‘in the wilderness’, and how it affects us today, when we are living in YISHUV, settled areas, must confront the world and be involved in business. The option of never leaving the Beit Medrash is legitimate as long as the MAN (‘manna’) appeared every morning. But for us we must earn our bread while keeping the Beit Medrash with us all the time.