וידבר ה' אל משה במדבר סיני באוהל מועד באחד לחודש השני בשנה השנית לצאתם מארץ מצרים לאמר.
“And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the Sanctuary, on the first of the second month in the second year after their leaving the land of Egypt, so saying.” (Bamidbar 1:1)
Hashem is instructing Moshe to count the Jewish people. Why is it necessary to make such an elaborate introduction by mentioning exactly where and when this conversation took place? Why is it important to reiterate that these instructions were given in the Sinai Desert?
We are now approaching Shavuos, the day of matan Torah – when the Torah was given to us at Sinai. Before giving the Torah, Hashem commanded the Jewish people to prepare themselves for this event. So too, every year before we accept the Torah once again on Shavuos, we should prepare ourselves in order to be worthy of this wonderful Divine gift.
The tzaddik Rebbe Hersh of Rimonov says in the name of his Rebbe Reb Mendel of Rimonov: “In what ways did the Jewish people prepare themselves to receive the Torah? They did not have the mitzvos yet, so what did they do? They prayed and asked Hashem for all of the things we pray for in the tefillah of Ahava Rabbah: ‘Light up our eyes in Your Torah and connect our hearts with Your mitzvos, and unite our hearts to love and fear Your Name!’ The more they prayed with great intensity, the more ready they became to accept the most wonderful gift to the world – the holy Torah.”
In this beautiful prayer we ask Hashem to connect our hearts to the mitzvos, and then continue asking that He should unite our hearts to love and fear Him. What is the difference between these two parts of our request? When our hearts are connected to the mitzvos, then our hearts are automatically full of love and fear of Hashem, because loving and fearing Him are included in the mitzvos. Another interesting point is that when we ask Hashem to connect our hearts to the mitzvoswe use the word libeinu, which is singular for “our heart.” On the other hand, when praying that our hearts should be full of love and fear, we use the word levoveinu, which is plural for “our hearts,” as if each person had more than one heart. This word can be understood to mean “with both parts of our heart,” i.e., with all our inclinations and desires. Why do we first use the singular form and then the plural form?
The Gemara says (Yuma 72b): When a person learns Torah, then if he is worthy the Torah becomes a medicine that prolongs life, but if he is unworthy then the Torah becomes like deadly poison for him. Torah is like a potent herb; when used correctly it heals, but when used incorrectly it can be extremely dangerous.
Unfortunately, some people do not even try to learn Torah. They wrongly think that Torah learning is “not for them.” The yetzer hara convinces them that they are not cut out to learn, either because they are unable to grasp Torah concepts quickly, or because they forget their learning, or whatever the reason may be. “Your learning wouldn’t be acceptable by Hashem,” he tells them. “For you, the Torah may be like a deadly poison.” With these arguments, the yetzer hara keeps the person away from learning Torah altogether.
This is why we pray to Hashem: “And light up our eyes with Your Torah!” The first step is that we should understand our learning, “and connect our hearts to Your mitzvos”- enable us to be connected to what we learn, we should remember it and retain it. But even if we’ve already achieved this part, we must never forget that there are two opposing forces within our hearts – the yetzer hara and the yetzer tov. Even when the person is fortunate to learn and understand what he learns, and to connect his heart to the mitzvos, the yetzer hara tries to turn the Torah he has learned into a deadly poison. If the yetzer hara succeeds, then the person’s toiling in Torah may turn out to work against him. Therefore, we continue by praying expressly that both parts of our heart should be united in love and fear of Hashem. It is not enough that our heart, as a whole, is connected to the mitzvos. We specifically beseech Hashem that all of our inclinations should unite together to serve Him. By using the powers of love and fear together, we have the ability to disarm the yetzer hara and turn even the evil inclination into a yetzer tov, and then the Torah becomes a potent medicine for a blessed life.
In case anyone thinks that he is unable to accept the Torah because he did not prepare himself properly, Hashem is reminding us that the Torah was given in the Sinai Desert. The Torah was not given in Eretz Yisroel, but in the wilderness where there is no vegetation or active life besides snakes and scorpions. Just like the wilderness could be a place of Torah, so too even if a person’s heart is like a desert, he can accept the Torah. And just like the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, which was a humble mountain, so too the Torah thrives in the heart of those who are humble.
A person who did prepare himself to receive the Torah should be careful not to become smug, because Torah that is learned with conceit is like a deadly poison. True, he may have lots of Torah but the Torah is of no benefit to him. Unfortunately, this type of poison already destroyed many people; conceit is a deadly poison indeed!
This is what the verse is telling us: “And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert.” We learn this parsha before Shavuos, to remind ourselves each year anew that the Torah was given in the wilderness, in a place that was claimed by no one, in a place without plant life or beneficial animal life. So too, the Torah can be acquired by anyone regardless of his worthiness.
The verse continues: “…in the Ohel Moed – the Sanctuary.” The word ohel is from the root word yahel, which means light, and moed means a specific time. Each year before the specific time of Matan Torah, Hashem allows us to benefit from the same great light that illuminated the world during the giving of the Torah. “In the first of the second month.” The word chodesh – month, symbolizes newness. A person always has a new chance to receive the Torah. “After leaving Egypt.” When the Jewish people left Egypt, they were completely naked of mitzvos; they had no spiritual clothes or merits, and still Hashem found them worthy to receive His glorious Torah. So too, even if a person is barren of mitzvos, he should never despair of receiving the Torah. He too can prepare for Matan Torah!
The more we will daven for this, the more we will come to appreciate what it really means to live a Torah life. We will come to realize how precious each person is and how great is Hashem’s love for each and every one of us. Hashem commanded Moshe to count all of the people, including those who felt unworthy, because each and every one of us is beloved by Hashem.
May we indeed be worthy of preparing ourselves properly to receive the Torah. Hashem will help each person with whatever yeshuos or refuos he may need, and may we merit greeting Moshiach speedily in our days, Amen.