Elli Schwarcz- Shavuot: The Desert in Depth 5780

The summit of Mount Sinai - Wikipedia

Two astute readers pointed out that one need not literally deprive himself in order to fulfill the charge to “Eat salt with bread, and drink water in measure…” Rather, as Rashi to Pirkei Avot explains, this refers to a certain mindset and commitment that the Torah-learner must have. I only alluded to this approach last week, and hope to delve into this in the near future. Thanks, N.L. and N.K., for the clarification!


Last week we discussed lessons we learn from the desert. Here’s a review:

* One must imitate the desert in order to fully acquire Torah knowledge and influence.

* The two requirements we learn from the desert are detachment from material pleasures and humility.

* These two requirements are actually connected; a haughty person feels he deserves everything, while a humble person is happy with basic necessities.

-We’ll interrupt the review with a couple of fresh sources that develop this last idea…

The words of the Torah are compared to water… to tell you: just like water… flows downwards and gathers in the ditch, so words of Torah are not found in the haughty…, but rather with the lowly and humble spirit who rolls in the dust of the Rabbi’s feet, and removes the desires and enjoyments of the day from his heart…

-Rambam, Laws of Torah Study, 3:9

-This inspiring painting, in which the Rambam depicts the words of the Talmud, captures perfectly the image of a humble and simple person striving to understand God’s will- and helps the reader understand deeply that humility and simplicity go hand-in-hand.


Humility removes many stumbling blocks from a person’s path- and brings him closer to many good things- because a humble person will care little for worldly things, and will not yearn for its insignificant things…

-Mesilat Yesharim, Chapter 22


Haughtiness brings to desire…

-Orchot Tzaddikim, Sha’ar Ga’avah

Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, may he live and be well, notes such statements of our Rabbis and observes:

The entire problem of chasing luxuries and worldly desires- which are major reasons preventing Man from connection with Torah study, due to the preoccupations and worries of the day- can be corrected through the trait of humility…

-Matnas Cha’im, Kinyanei HaTorah

Continuing the review:

* The two great people most associated with Torah study are Yaakov Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu, and they both fulfilled these requirements to the highest degree.

* The requirements are true on both practical and spiritual levels; haughtiness and distractions prevent dedicated searching for Truth, and also make the person unworthy of God gifting him the Torah.

Let’s focus now on the very last point we made last week- that a connection to the Torah is a gift that one must merit. The first thing we need to understand is: why? Why does Torah study, of all mitzvot, make demands of a person’s character before he can succeed at it? A similar question: Shouldn’t Torah function the same way as any other subject, so that intelligence and effort alone should dictate how much the student gains?

The answer to both of these questions begins in the Kabbalah…

He looked in the Torah and created the Universe. -Zohar

The Torah is the Light of the Universe. -Zohar

– This means that God created the Universe through the Torah. Put very simply for now, the Torah was the foundation of all Creation- and its purpose:

For the sake of the Torah… He created the Universe.


-and therefore,

…without a doubt, if there would be no Torah study in any part of the world for even one moment, all worlds would cease to exist…

-Nefesh HaCha’im, Chapter 4

As the great Rabbi Chaim Valozhiner famously explains (ibid.), although we here on Earth see only our own small, completely physical world, in reality it is just ‘the last link of the chain’; God created many worlds, each more spiritual and elevated than the one below it. He created the higher worlds in such a way that they also ‘spill over’ into a lower level, thus forming a less elevated world as another part of a chain- and Earth is the final, and therefore most physical, part of this sequence.

Now, being that the Torah came before all of these worlds, we can understand that it itself never changed forms in the ‘Creation process’; the Torah as we humans know it is the same Torah that exists within the highest, most unimaginable spiritual realities, still a life force for all of these worlds.

That being the case, people should really not be able to access Torah at all, just as people have no relationship with all of the higher worlds*. The fact that Torah is accessible, then, must be a miracle- a phenomenon beyond the boundaries of nature. -Or, in other words, this is a gift from Hashem…

This answers some basic questions about the greatest event in world history: Matan Torah, the ‘Giving of the Torah’.

1.Why do we refer to the ‘giving’ of the Torah- shouldn’t we call it the ‘Receiving of the Torah’, describing our own role while emphasizing how fortunate we are to be in that position? 2. What was actually ‘given’ at Har Sinai? The physical first Luchot (Tablets), were only given to Moshe 40 days later- so what was ‘given’ now?

-The answer to these last two questions, according to Rabbi Eliyahu Steinhardt of Baltimore, is that the ‘giving’ was the most important and novel part of the whole event- because it refers to Hashem making the Torah accessible to Man; this was the giving!

And you know what? This was not a one-time event either, some reprogramming giving us unlimited eternal access . True, we were given a connection to- and authority over- the Torah**, but to this day we still require Hashem’s favor every time we study it; without His assistance every time we open a Chumash or Gemara, we cannot gain real, lasting understanding and influence from something so above us. It should come as no surprise, then, that…

(when Moshe Rabbenu ascended to Heaven after Matan Torah, in order to learn the entire Torah from Hashem,) Rabbi Yochanan said: At first Moshe studied -but forgot it, until it was given to him as a gift…

-Gemara Nedarim 38a

-The very first- and the deepest- learning of Torah after our newfound access, and it gets forgotten! This is not by chance, but perhaps a message that even the greatest of all men needed to witness firsthand: Torah is a gift.

Both ‘givings’- that of Sinai and that of every day since- are seen in the blessing we make on Torah each morning:

‘…Who chose us from all the nations, and gave us His Torah… Giver of the Torah.’

-In other words, He gave us a general connection to the Torah at Sinai, and gives us-in the present- Torah each time we study it. Only with that help, in His being

‘The Teacher of His Nation Israel, with love’ -Torah blessing (conclusion)

can we grasp our studies every time.

With this in mind, commentators explain a well- known phrase:

(If someone tells you,) ‘I put effort (into Torah study) and I found (i.e. understood)’, believe him.

-Gemara Megillah 6b

-That is, even when we put effort into Torah study, the results are not automatic, because by nature the Torah is too spiritual to grasp; instead, one just ‘finds’ the knowledge, as if ‘Someone’ dropped it in front of him as reward for the effort he had put into it!

Likewise, we find deeper meaning in a familiar verse:

For I have given you a good acquisition; do not abandon My Torah!

– Mishlei, 4:2

-Hashem tells of how He gave us the Torah- but then still calls it ‘My Torah’! We now understand: He gave us initial access to Torah at Sinai, but reminds us that our everyday connection to it is still not automatic, because it is still His- and we mustn’t forget (‘abandon’) that reality!

Torah is supernatural and our relationship with it only comes through Hashem’s favor- so we should feel responsible to draw closer to Him within our studies, improving ourselves as we strive to become worthy recipients of God’s ‘hidden treasure’.

Let’s take another look now at two Talmudic passages we have already studied. (One Gemara was mentioned in a footnote last week, and the other was in Moshe: Servant of God II, 2014. They are on Shabbat 88b and Shabbat 89a, respectively.)  Both concern Moshe Rabbeinu’s role in Matan Torah- and we should gain a deeper understanding of them based on what we now know. We’ll record them again now; try to read them well, because they’ll contain more details here than as we originally quoted them. Also, see if you can pick up on any differences between them- we’ll compare and contrast them together afterwards.

The first teaching tells of Moshe ascending to Heaven after Matan Torah, in order to learn the entire Torah from Hashem:

When Moshe went up to the Heavens, the angels told Hashem,

‘Master of the universe, what business does a human have with us?’

He told them:

‘He came to receive the Torah.’

They told Him:

‘You have a hidden treasure, which was hidden for you for 974 generations before the universe was created- You want to give it to flesh and blood!? Who is Man that You should pay him attention…?’

[With Hashem’s encouragement, Moshe eventually grabbed onto the Throne of Glory for protection and responded to the angels. He pointed out that angels don’t have temptations, nor do they have the physical characteristics described in the Torah relating to the positive and negative commandments- only to ‘lowly’ Man are all of these relevant. The angels accepted his argument, stopping their protests and even giving him gifts before he descended. -How the angels could have believed the Torah as relevant to them in the fisrt place- and what Moshe was really telling them nevertheless- is a topic that requires separate discussion.]

The second Gemara concerns Moshe’s descent from the Heavens 40 days later:

At the time Moshe went down from before Hashem, Satan came and said to Him,

‘Master of the universe, where is the Torah?’

He told him,’I gave it to Earth’

He (Satan) went to Earth…

[Satan asked the land if the Torah could be found with it, and it answered in the negative. Satan visited several wordly places, and was denied each time- until he was directed by Hashem specifically to Moshe.]

He (Satan) went to Moshe. He told him,

‘Where is the Torah that Hashem gave you?’

He answered,’And who am I that Hashem should give me His Torah?’

Hashem told Moshe (lightly),’Moshe, are you a liar?’

He answered, ‘Master of the universe, You have a hidden treasure with which you ‘play’ every day- and I should take credit for myself!?’

Hashem told Moshe,

‘Since you minimized yourself, it (Torah) will be called by your name! -As it says, “Remember the Torah of Moshe, My servant…” ‘(Malachi, 3:22)

-Now we notice the details- and the differences between the two passages…

  1. In the first story, the angels are protesting against Moshe; in the second story, Satan is challenging him.
  2. In the first story, the angels’ argument is based on how the Torah existed before the universe; in the second story, Moshe claims he could not have been given the Torah that Hashem ‘plays’ with every day.
  3. In the first story, the angels protest the giving of the Torah to ‘flesh and blood’; in the second story, Moshe explains that he could not ‘take credit’ for receiving it.

Here’s what it might all mean:

The angels, on their high spiritual level and with their connection to Torah, were arguing that Man could not possibly access the Torah; the fact that it had preceded the universe was proof that its holiness was beyond him. So Moshe could not be permitted to learn it from Hashem; that would be the final step in the Jewish People being given something that was really impossible for them to receive. (At the end, of course, Hashem made a miracle, making Torah accessible to us nevertheless.)

The second story was after Hashem had already made Torah accessible to us; ‘I gave it to Earth’- and so concerns the next level of connection to Torah: the assistance He gives individuals in their Torah studies every day. The Yetzer Harah (Evil Inclination), we know, tries to disturb us from studying Torah- and so it was Satan who came to disrupt the personal miracles Hashem makes for Torah students. He tried to trick Moshe into taking credit for bringing the Jews the Torah, wanting to ruin Moshe’s famous humility and so ruin his relationship with Hashem and His Torah.

And so Moshe responded to Satan: ‘Who am I that Hashem should give me the Torah?’


‘True, Hashem placed the Torah in Man’s domain, but it’s still His- I don’t own it! ‘How can I take credit for myself’ when I am learning the thing Hashem ‘plays’ with every day!?’

With these words, Moshe showed future generations the way: the Torah study experience is not about Man’s greatness- it is about his relationship with God.

-How deep are the words of our Rabbis! We should make one more neat observation: the two stories parallel the two requirements for Torah study that we have been discussing!:

Moshe was confronted by the angels when attempting to study while completely removed from worldly concerns- he didn’t sleep, eat or drink for 40 full days. The angels’ claim against him invoked physicality: ‘human being’, ‘flesh and blood’. And when they accepted his counterclaim… they gave him gifts of a spiritual nature, as if to admit that he had successfully detached from physicality.

Later, Satan tried to undermine Moshe’s humility, but Moshe remained humble- and so the Torah was called his after all, and he was called God’s servant…

May we recognize the greatness of our Rabbis’ teachings and of the Torah, the source of their wisdom. And may we appreciate that Torah is our connection with God. The key to success? Remember the desert.


*Until then, it had belonged in the spiritual spheres, for the angels to study on their own elevated levels:

Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi said: At the time Moshe Rabbeinu went up to the Heavens the angels said to Hashem:

‘Why is a human being among us?’

He told them, ‘He came to receive the Torah.’

They said to Him, ‘The hidden treasure, that was hidden for You for 974 generations before the Universe was created, You want to give to flesh and blood?! Who is Man that You should pay attention to him…?…’ -Gemara Shabbat 88b

(-See the continuation of the Gemara there for the rest of the story, including Moshe’s response and the angels’ admission to him. This Gemara should be the basis of the last part of this series, before Shavuot.)

**The full meaning of how Torah is now in the domain of Man requires its own separate conversation. For a clear and interesting explanation, see Rabbi Akiva Tatz’s Worldmask.

Have a great Shavuot and Shabbat!

Elli Schwarcz


Elli is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.

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