13 Av 5780 / Monday, August 03, 2020 | Torah Reading: Eikev
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Bamidbar: Exhilarating!    

Bamidbar: Exhilarating!

How do we know that one's fear of sin and service of Hashem is the real deal? It should be exhilarating, not debilitating...


G-d spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert by the Tent of Meeting, on the first of the second month in the second year... (Bamidbar 1:1)


"... On the first of Nissan the Mishkan was erected, and on the first of Iyar they were counted." (Rashi)

The Rashbam points out an interesting point on this verse:


"All the times something was said during the first year [at Mt. Sinai], before the Mishkan was set up, it mentions 'Mt. Sinai.' But, from the time the Mishkan was erected--on the first of the month in the second year--it does not mention Mt. Sinai, but rather, says 'in the Sinai Desert at the Tent of Meeting.' " (Rashbam)
The only thing is, that, the Rashbam does not explain the significance of pointing this out. There is no question that the building of the Mishkan, and the service therein was a turning point in Jewish history, but what difference does it make in terms of the way the Torah delivers its narration?

To begin with, it is noteworthy that a mountain and a desert are opposites--very opposite. A mountain is high, and grand, and therefore represents pride. On the other hand, a desert is low, and without ostentation. It represents humility, and as the Talmud warns:
A person should make himself into a desert ... (Eiruvin 54a)
Torah is not in heaven ... (Devarim 30:12) This means that Torah will not be found in someone who elevates himself. (Eiruvin 55a)
--that is, he makes himself like a mountain, as opposed to like a desert.
Having pointed this out, perhaps this is the basis of the Rashbam's remark, as if to say: Before the Mishkan was built and the Jewish people had a House of G-d in their midst, it was difficult to conquer pride, and therefore, it was difficult to integrate Torah. The episode of the golden calf was a direct result of this problem.
However, after the golden calf forced the construction of the a physical dwelling place for G-d, there was something in the midst of the Jewish people to constantly inspire awe. It was this sense of awe that humbled the Jewish people, and transformed them from "mountains" to "midbars" (deserts).
Perhaps this is also why the counting of the Jewish people follows this verse. As has been pointed out many times before, the language the Torah uses is "lift up the heads" of the people, because, the counting often came after a spiritual crisis that lowered the morale of the Jewish people. Counting them made them feel important once again, and was a Divine method to raise their spirits.
Now we can add another component as well. The Torah (via the Rashbam), is telling us that the service of G-d has to be filled with awe, and one must be humble (especially to learn Torah objectively). Nevertheless, one must keep a balanced perspective, and not become overly intimidated from awe of G-d and living by Torah. Fear of G-d and the fear of sin should be exhilarating, not debilitating.

Pinchas Winston is the author of over 95 books on various topics that deal with current issues from a traditional Jewish perspective. He has also written on the weekly Torah reading since 1993, called Perceptions, as well as on current topics and trends affecting Jewish history, past and present. One of his missions is to make the depth and beauty of the more mystical teachings of Torah understandable and accessible to those who can really benefit from them. Visit his website at thirtysix.org.


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