ויסעו ממרה ויבואו אילמה ובאילם שתים עשרה עינות מים ושבעים תמרים ויחנו שם.
“And they traveled from Marah and arrived at Eilam; and at Eilam there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they rested there.” (Bamidbar 33:9)
Why is it important for the Torah to specify how many springs and palm trees there were in Eilam?
The Degel Machne Ephraim comments on this verse: We have seen throughout the ages how our holy sages drew all of their wisdom from the Torah. At the same time, there were unfortunately many apikorsim (heretics) who tried to bring proof from the Torah to support their misguided ideas and beliefs. How could the same Torah be a source for all truth and wisdom and at the same time be used by apikorsim to validate their beliefs?
This is so because the Torah is compared to water, explains the Degel Machne Ephraim. Just as there are sweet wellsprings and also bitter waters, those who study Torah with ulterior motives tap into the “bitter waters” and do not merit tasting the sweetness of Torah. These people end up misinterpreting the true meaning of the Torah’s words. They become trapped in falsehood with almost no way of discovering the truth of Torah.
How can a person save himself from falling into this trap? He must use the attribute of Yakov Avinu, who was a paradigm of emes – truth. When learning Torah, he must seek absolute truth and put aside any personal agendas he may have. The word אילם – Eilam, spells out the words: Yakov Avinu Lo Meis – Yakov Avinu didn’t die. This statement is symbolic of Yakov’s main attribute of truth, as the Gemara teaches (Shabbos 104) that truth lasts forever, while every falsehood will eventually fall apart. The location of Eilam therefore symbolizes truth.
“And they traveled from Marah.” The word Marah means “bitter.” The Jewish people left the bitter waters – the path of falsehood, and arrived at Eilam – the place that is symbolic of truth. The Jewish people were now able to learn Torah with complete truthfulness and thereby feel its sweetness.
The holy Ari writes that there are twelve heavenly gates through which the prayers of the Jewish people ascend. Each tribe has its own gate; the prayers of each tribe must pass through its own gate in order to reach the heavens. There are also twelve individual nusach tefillahs (modes of prayer), one for each tribe. And just as in the Bais Hamikdosh there was a General Gate which was used by those Jews who didn’t know to which tribe they belong, there is also a General Gate in heaven. The prayers of those Jews who do not know to which tribe they belong, travel through this heavenly gate. The Ari writes that he therefore composed his nusach tefillah (Nusach Ari) that is compatible with the General Gate, and should be used by those Jews who do not know from which tribe they originate. Most Jews in our generation are either from the tribe of Yehuda or Binyomin, which is why there are two common forms of prayer known today – Nusach Ashkenaz and Nusach Sefard; but the Nusach Ari is meant for those who do not know their tribe.
In any case, in order to be able to taste the sweetness of Torah and follow the true path of Torah learning, using the attribute of Yakov Avinu, we must use the method of prayer. We must pray for Divine assistance so that we should be able to achieve true greatness in Torah according to the correct interpretation of its words, and benefit from its eternal wisdom in our lives.
The verse is conveying to us this important message: “At Eilam there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees.” If we want to arrive at Eilam, and taste the truth of Torah, we must utilize the “twelve springs” – the prayer gates in heaven. If we will pray with sincerity, we will merit tasting the true sweetness of Torah. The seventy palm trees are symbolic of the seventy facades of the Torah, through which one can taste the Torah’s sweetness, which is compared to the honey coming from dates (hence the reference to palm trees).
How indeed does a person who learns Torah stumble upon the bitter waters? This comes about due to the person’s sins; the torah is repulsed by sin and stays away from such a person. If the person doesn’t repent, he cannot understand the true meaning of the Torah’s words. It is about such a person that the Gemara (Taanis 7a) says: “If someone is unworthy, the Torah becomes a deathly poison for him.”
In order to avoid this from happening, the person should remember the principle that is mentioned among the laws of koshering utensils (Bamidbar 31:23): “Everything that came in contact with fire should be cleansed with fire and thus purified.” The Siddurei shel Shabbos explains that if someone feels a fire of lust burning in his heart, or if he feels that his heart is consumed by the fires of rage, then in order to extinguish this evil fire he should light a different fire in his heart – a fire of kedusha – holiness. If he will do so, then his heart will be cleansed and purified with this fire.
There is a story about the holy Yismach Moshe, whose yartzeit is on 28 Tammuz: He once traveled to his Rebbe, the holy Seer of Lublin. At that time there was no proper mikvah in Lublin, so the Yismach Moshe went to immerse in a nearby river. When he came to his Rebbe, the Rebbe saw that his disciple’s payos are wet. “Where did you immerse?” the Rebbe asked. “There is no mikvah.” When the Yismach Moshe replied that he immersed in the river, the Rebbe said: “It is our tradition that if there is no mikvah, the person should immerse himself in a river of fire!” Of course, he didn’t mean to say that a person should actually enter a furnace; he implied that a person should immerse himself in an internal fire by filling his heart with a fiery passion for serving Hashem.
If a person will do this, then whenever his heart pulls him in the wrong direction – he comes in contact with an improper fire, then by filling his entire being with a fiery longing for Hashem, he will vanquish the improper fire and become purified. Then he will merit tasting the truth of Torah and feel the supreme sweetness of every precious Torah word.