Yisro 5778

The qualities needed to receive the Torah[1]

…באו מדבר סיני: ויסעו מרפידים ויבאו מדבר סיני ויחנו במדבר ויחן-שם ישראל נגד ההר
…[The Jews] arrived in the wilderness of Sinai. They traveled from Refidim, and they came to the wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness. Israel encamped[2] there opposite the mountain[3]

Just before the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and the revelation of the Ten Commandments, the Torah describes the Jews’ journeys through the wilderness. The Torah describes it in an unusual fashion, first stating that they arrived in the wilderness of Sinai, and then saying that they left Refidim to arrive in the wilderness of Sinai. Usually when describing a journey, a person would state where they left from first, and only then mention the destination. Why did the Torah make this switch?

The Ohr HaChaim explains[4] that the Torah isn’t merely describing the Jews’ journey. It is teaching a fundamental lesson on how to be a student. In order for the Jews to receive the Torah, there were three prerequisites they had to fulfill. They had to attain the qualities of diligence[5], humility[6], and unity. These three qualities are alluded to in the above verse. The Torah says they left Refidim. If it were only referring to a physical location, this verse would have been stated earlier. Rather, Refidim can also mean weakness[7]. The Jews abandoned the traits of weakness, laziness, and apathy. These were replaced with strength, fortitude, and diligence.

The Torah then says that they arrived in the wilderness of Sinai. This signified that they attained the quality of humility. Chazal teach us[8] that words of Torah only stay with a person who lowers their stature and becomes like a wilderness. The wilderness connotes humility since every type of person travels through it. Finally, the Torah says Israel encamped there. The word encamped, ויחן, is written in the singular. Even though they were many people, they were like one person, with one heart[9]. They had complete unity. Only once they had these three qualities were they suitable to receive the Torah.

The Vilna Gaon says[10] a similar idea to explain a puzzling story in the gemarra[11], known as the Tanor shel Achnai. However, he understands that humility will inherently lead to unity. Therefore, he replaces the quality of unity with the quality of being satisfied with less[12]. The story goes that Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages had a dispute about a particular oven’s ritual purity status. Rabbi Eliezer tried very hard to convince the Sages of his opinion, but to no success. As a final attempt he exclaimed: “If the law is like me, the carob tree will prove me right!” The carob tree next to them immediately was uprooted and launched two hundred feet[13] away. The Sages responded that, “We don’t bring proofs from carob trees”. Rabbi Eliezer exclaimed: “If the law is like me, the water will prove me right!” The water stream proceeded to flow in the opposite direction. The Sages responded that, “We don’t bring proofs from water streams”. Rabbi Eliezer exclaimed: “If the law is like me, the walls of the study hall will prove me right!” The walls of the study hall proceeded to incline on themselves[14].

What’s unusual with this story is the proofs that Rabbi Eliezer was trying to bring, and the Sages responses to them. Rabbi Eliezer failed to prove his point using logic, so he seemingly felt a miracle would show that G-d was on his side. Once even that failed, why did he continue to provide miracles? As well, why didn’t the Sages simply respond that: “We don’t bring proofs from miracles”? Why did they specify each miracle as something that we don’t bring proofs from: carob trees, water streams, and the walls of the study hall? Why did Rabbi Eliezer choose these specific miracles to prove his point?

The Vilna Gaon suggests that Rabbi Eliezer was trying to deliver a deeper message to his contemporaries. He was trying to convey that Torah is only acquired with three qualities: being satisfied with less[15], humility[16], and great diligence[17]. Rabbi Eliezer wanted the Sages to know that he had the proper understanding of the law, as he had acquired these three qualities. He showed them a miracle with the carob tree, which symbolizes being satisfied with less. There are stories of Sages in the Talmud that either by choice[18] or against their will[19] only subsisted from eating carobs. They didn’t complain they had nothing else to eat, and despite what they lacked they became great scholars. The Sages responded to Rabbi Eliezer that being satisfied with less is no guarantee that one won’t make a mistake.

Rabbi Eliezer then showed them a miracle with the stream of water. Torah is compared to water[20], and water symbolizes humility. Just like water always goes to the lowest depths, so too Torah only lasts in a person who is of humble spirit[21]. He showed them that he had acquired the trait of humility, so it is fitting that the law be in accordance to him[22]. The Sages responded that not everyone who is humble is worthy to have the law like them. Rabbi Eliezer then showed them a miracle with the walls of the study hall. He wanted them to know that the walls could testify that he was there early in the morning until late at night studying[23]. This showed his diligence. Despite all of this, the Sages didn’t heed his words.

The miracles in this story reflect the same message in this week’s parsha. The Jews left Refidim, meaning they fortified themselves to be diligent in their learning. This was shown with the miracle of the walls of the study hall. They encamped in the wilderness, which due to its lack of provisions showed they were satisfied with little. This was shown with the miracle of the carob tree. They then encamped unified as one, which came from a sense of humility. This was shown with the miracle of the water stream. How wise we would be to try to acquire these traits for ourselves.

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on a shmuess by Rav Aharon Feldman shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisroel, Shavuos 5777

[2] This word is in the singular, as will be explained below

[3] Exodus 19:1,2

[4] Ad. loc.

[5] See Rashi to Shabbos 88b s.v. למיימינים

[6] See Ruach Chaim to Avos 1:1 s.v. וז”ש שהיו הנביאים and Shem HaGedolim 1:165 (מרן מהר”ר יוסף קארו)

[7] As seen from Sanhedrin 106a

[8] Eruvin 54a

[9] Rashi ad. loc., quoting Mechilta

[10] Penimim MiShulchan HaGra to Deuteronomy 30:12, citing Toldos Adam Al R’ Zelmela by Rabbi Yechezkel Feivel of Vilna in the name of the Vilna Gaon

[11] Bava Metzia 59b

[12] Rav Feldman wanted to say the Ohr HaChaim and the Vilna Gaon agree with each other. I subsequently asked him how this was so, and he simply said that the Ohr HaChaim included the attribute of being satisfied with less. I still don’t see it in his words, so I therefore chose to explain it as it would appear to be on the surface: a dispute

[13] Literally: one hundred amos

[14] The continuation of the story is not relevant for the purposes of this devar Torah, but the Sages seem to be victorious in the end as they were the majority opinion

[15] He brings as proof Avos 6:4 and Berachos 17b

[16] Taanis 7a, as will be quoted below

[17] He brings as proof Eruvin 21b, as will be quoted below. The Ohr HaChaim brings a proof from Berachos 63b

[18] Rabbi Yossi ben Chalaftah only ate a kav of carobs a week, see Berachos 17b

[19] Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son while hiding from the Romans in a cave, see Shabbos 33b

[20] Isaiah 55:1

[21] Taanis loc. cit.

[22] Like Beis Hillel, who were humble, and the halacha follows them (see Eruvin 13b)

[23] Those who know Torah are the ones who acted this way, see Eruvin 21b