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Shlach 5770

By: Rav David Milston

The Desert as Fertile Ground for Commentary
“And while Bnei Yisrael were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on Shabbat.  And those that found him gathering sticks brought him to Moshe and Aharon, and to the entire congregation.  And they put him in custody, because it was not declared what should be done to him.  And the Lord said to Moshe, The man shall be surely put to death; the whole congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.  And the entire congregation brought him outside the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moshe.” (Bamidbar, 15:32-36)
There are numerous questions we can ask here, but I would specifically like to deal with the very first verse.
Why does the Torah tell us this incident took place in the wilderness? Where else could it have taken place? We have already been told (during this very parasha), that this generation of Am Yisrael was doomed to live and die in the midbar!
The Talmud offers an interesting solution to our question:
“Our Rabbis taught: The gatherer was Tzelophchad.  And thus it is said, ‘And while Bnei Yisrael were in the wilderness they found a man (gathering sticks); whilst elsewhere it is said, ‘Our father died in the wilderness (Bamidbar, 27:3.) Just as Tzelophchad was inferred there, so here too we are referring to Tzelophchad: this is the view of Rabbi Akiva.”[1]
Rabbi Akiva suggests “the wilderness” is used in our verse to allude to the gatherer’s identity without actually mentioning his name.  From this statement we can see how important it is to be careful when relaying important events.  We must only include the details that are absolutely necessary for the second party; any superfluity would be considered both wrong and sinful.  And even Rabbi Akiva himself is rebuked for making his statement, as the Gemara continues: “Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira said to him: ‘Akiva! In either case you will have to give an account for your statement: If you are right, the Torah shielded him, while you reveal him; and if not, you cast a stigma upon a righteous man.”
The Abarbanel suggests the word “wilderness” refers not to the identity of the sinner, but to the sin itself.  Since Am Yisrael were in a place generally bare of sticks, a person gathering them on Shabbat would have had to walk quite a way on Shabbat in order to collect all he needed and his sin would therefore be a transgression of the verse in Shemot, 16:29:
“See that the Lord has given you the Shabbat, therefore he gives you on the sixth day the bread of two days; remain every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.”
Rabbeinu Bachya offers a number of possible explanations:
1.  The verse emphasizes the desert location to illustrate the severity of the act that had just taken place.  This man had deliberately desecrated Shabbat in most unreasonable fashion.  Whilst Am Yisrael were in the midbar they received daily portions of manna, which is the greatest testimony of the involvement of the Creator in this world – a daily food delivery to your doorstep! Any desecration of Shabbat – whose objective is to remind us of the creation and of God’s ongoing involvement in the world – is unforgivable. 
Living in today’s reality, we need Shabbat to remind us that man does not rule the Kingdom.  We have to ‘stop the world’ so we can put matters into their truest perspective.   Sadly, it is not surprising to see how relatively few Jews observe the Shabbat halachically.  When living in such a material reality, where the Almighty’s intervention is not necessarily plain for the eye to see, the likelihood of masses of people finding spirituality without the right kind of leadership and guidance is minimal to say the least.
But in the Midbar there was no viable reason not to believe.  After all, they were living and breathing miracles on a daily basis; they were led by a column of smoke and by a pillar of fire; they received fresh cold water when and as they wished; they were witnesses to God’s unconcealed involvement in this world.  If a person in this situation unashamedly violates the Shabbat, it is certainly not something to be ignored by the narrative. 
If we adopt this first suggestion, maybe we can also understand why the gatherer’s punishment was not immediately obvious to Am Yisrael.  This was not a run-of-the-mill desecration of the Sabbath but an open act of rebellion, and so needed to be dealt with in that context.  In fact, due to the severity of the act and its blatant public statement, the entire community had to deal with the sinner. 
Such an interpretation fits extremely well with the verses immediately preceding this episode:
“But the person that acts presumptuously, whether he is born in the land, or a stranger, that person dishonors the Lord, and that soul shall be cut off from among his people.  Because he has despised the word of the Lord, and has broken His commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him.” (Bamidbar, 15:30-31).  Having stated a halachic instruction, the Torah sees fit to follow up with a practical example of the ‘presumptuous rebel.’
2.  Through this individual’s action, we can understand the communal attitude existing at the time.  It was really part and parcel of the sin of the spies. 
We often judge events superficially.  We see cause and effect and automatically assume the most obvious cause is in fact the only cause.  One could easily have presumed the only reason Am Yisrael were denied entry into Eretz Yisrael was due to the spy-scandal, but this particular episode was only the tip of the iceberg.  The actions of the leadership and of the people who willingly followed them were not isolated ones, but rather external expressions of an ongoing phenomenon of spiritual regression.  Thus our opening verse tells us Am Yisrael were in the wilderness not only because they showed a lack of faith leading up to their entry into Eretz Yisrael, but rather because they were generally regressing in their religious development, to the extent that a person had no problem publicly desecrating the Shabbat.
This interpretation is especially crucial for our parasha.  In the aftermath of the sin of the spies and the consequent punishment, the people thought they could simply rectify their wrongdoing by changing their minds and entering Israel.[2] They did not fully understand that their initial reactions signified a much deeper problem than a simple rejection of Eretz Yisrael.  This spiritual deficiency would have to first be identified and only then uprooted before they would be ready to enter the Holy Land.  The incident of the wood gatherer goes to emphasize the depth of the problem at hand.
Such is the fertile ground of Torah commentary; we can also suggest a very different understanding of the word “wilderness”:
One might have thought any previous commitments were no longer binding since Am Yisrael had been so recently doomed to remain in the wilderness.  And so the gatherer, cognizant of Am Yisrael’s pathetic plight, with no future plans and no real objectives, did what he did as an expression of disengagement from the Torah and its obligations.  Of course there is no more effective way than desecrating the Shabbat, the most obvious expression of the covenant between Israel and God. 
Maybe this was the people’s precise predicament before the gatherer’s act.  Now they had been banned from entering the Land, perhaps their status had indeed changed.  Therefore they had to be reminded of the eternal nature of the covenant between God and the People of Israel.  It is independent of our actions, and so the punishment for desecrating the Shabbat remains the same, because Shabbat – the ultimate covenant –also remains totally in tact. 
This unconditional relationship does not of course provide the Jew with a blank check to do whatever he feels like, but it does reassure the ashamed sinner that all is not lost.  Even in the darkest of moments, we know there is light at the end of the tunnel. 
The Netivot Shalom, in explaining the verse in Yeshayahu (40:1), “Comfort you, Comfort you, My people,” says the ultimate comfort for the exiled people of Israel is that they will always remain “My people” – the people of God, irrespective of their current predicament.[3]
In conclusion, and slightly in contrast to our last suggestion, let us see the beautiful comments of Rav Hirsch:
“In this incident which took place in the wilderness, we see the same Bnei Yisrael, who fully rebelled against God and His guidance at the beginning of the parasha, returning to their better senses.  And even though they were destined to remain unfulfilled as a nation in the wilderness, being – at least for the present generation – consigned to hopeless and everlasting wandering, we nonetheless see in this episode that they are once again fully conscious of their duty.  They stand up with full earnestness against anyone who initiates any further spiritual rebellion.”
If we contemplated the possible negative motives of the gatherer in light of the incident of the spies, Rav Hirsch notes the word “wilderness” is not simply describing the mindset of the individual sinner, but also the mindset of the people as a whole.  And with such a perspective we see the greatness of Am Yisrael.  They did not follow the initiative of the gatherer who sought to cancel any prior commitment with the Almighty.  On the contrary, they immediately seized the desecrator, showing incredible strength of belief and character. 
It is not all or nothing.  They have sinned and they have been punished, but all is not lost.  And that’s why the entire congregation voluntarily involves itself in this case to show one need not despair, however terrible our mistakes and their terrible consequences.  The people’s reaction was not to give up, but to pick themselves up, shake off their disappointment and continue to march forwards to their ultimate objective!
Perhaps this is one of Am Yisrael’s greatest strengths.  When all seems lost, when all seems as barren as the wilderness, we are able to find the inner strength to return to our roots and reassert ourselves as the true heirs of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov! 


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