If I were to propose to you the following request: “Make yourself into a dessert” you would probably either look at me like I’m crazy, dress up as a cookie, or jump into a vat of ice-cream!
But what if I were to propose to you a slightly different request: “Make yourself into a desert.” Now, if you think I said the same thing twice, read again, closely. Wait for it. Aha! A desert? Like a hot, arid, lifeless desert? How am I supposed to make myself into a desert? What does that even mean?
Good question. Truth is, I had this same question when I read the Midrash on this week’s Parshah. On the opening passuk of Parshas Bamidbar - וַיְדַבֵּ֨ר ה' אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינַ֖י – the Midrash Rabbah (1:7) says: “Whoever does not make himself into an ownerless desert will be unable to acquire knowledge and Torah.” Using a slight nuance in verbiage, the Baal HaTurim says, “If a person does not make himself like a desert, he will not be able to know Torah and Mitzvos.”
It is clear. Chazal are proposing to us – and even warning us – “You better make yourself into a desert, otherwise there is no chance in spiritual growth.” But what does that mean? How am I supposed to turn into a desert? Should I go submerge in a desert dune? Should I go out in the sun and eat sand?
Thankfully, the Eitz Yosef, a fascinating commentary on the Midrash, offers us a simple yet profound insight into what it means to make ourselves into a desert. It means to be שפל ועניו – lowly and humble. The spiritual characteristic trait of a desert is ענוה, humility. True growth in life can only come when a person is in the realm of humility.
It is fascinating to me that the Hebrew word for desert is מדבר. In the hierarchy of existence, Chazal tell us there are 4 primary levels. There is דומם (referring to lifeless rocks), צומח (plants, trees, etc), חי (animals), and the highest level is the מדבר, pronounced “Medaber” (which refers to humans).
Clearly there is a strong parallel between a Midbar – a desert – and a Medaber – a human. Unlike rocks, plants, and animals which do not experience spiritual growth here on this world, a human does. The human, which is the primary creation of this world, is unique in its ability, capacity, and potential for spiritual improvement and growth.
I don’t mean to go all Latin on you, but the root word of both “human” and “humble” are exactly the same: humus, which means: earth and ground. The human is meant to be humble. How so? By being like the earth and the ground. By being like the Midbar. By making himself into a desert!
The Gematria of במדבר is 248, which so happens to be the number of limbs in the human body. Our job here on this world, is to take our bodies and elevate them spiritually. Ironically, the Midrash (quoted above) is clearly telling us that the ultimate way to be elevated is by living with humility.
A humble person, contrary to a once-popular belief, is not someone who is a pushover. But rather, a humble person is someone who is a mover, a shaker, a doer, and a bastion of Torah.
Have a holy Shabbos!