This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H & my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H & in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmother Channah Freidel Bas Sarah
-My great aunt Rivkah Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aviva Malka Bas Leah
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
עֵקֶב ~ Eikev
In the following segment of Moshe Rabbeinu’s speech to the B’nei Yisrael in Parshas Eikev, Moshe continues to urge the B’nei Yisrael to devote themselves to Hashem’s service by reminding them a lot about their national history throughout their travels in the wilderness, focusing on how Hashem had always been there for them, guiding the way and providing their needs each step of the way [Devarim 7-8]. The Torah highlights how Hashem brought the B’nei Yisrael out of Egypt, and how during all their years of traveling, Hashem protected the nation as a whole from all of the dangers and inconveniencies of the desert; hunger, thirst, snakes, scorpions, and even lack of clothes and shelter. This fact, Moshe implicitly argues, should behoove the B’nei Yisrael not to forget Hashem and His Torah.
As much of a provider and hero as Hashem may seem from this argument, is it not true that the B’nei Yisrael were only exposed to the difficult conditions of the desert in the first place because Hashem Himself led them out there, and kept them there for forty years? Now, one can argue that, perhaps, the B’nei Yisrael “deserved” years of wandering in the desert because of the Sin of the Spies who slandered the Promised Land. But, the fact is, Hashem ultimately wiped out the adults of the nation and continued to allow their children as well, to wander for the forty years. That means that it was they, the non-sinners, who were subject to the trying conditions of the desert, they who Moshe was now addressing. Either way, if Hashem was going to subject our nation to these conditions—even if the nation somehow deserved it—assuming that He wants to keep us as the people of His covenant, surely, He would have to make sure the entire nation doesn’t die in the desert. So, under these circumstances, for Hashem’s plan to work out, He kind of needed to spare us and make sure the conditions were bearable. Is that fact, then, a reason for the children to be bound to His laws, because of the protection He kind of “needed” to provide for them? Perhaps, in such case, it may be nice to say “thank you” for the perks and the little salvation gift basket, but again, if He would not have put them in the situation to begin with, they would not have ever had to worry about anything. Perhaps they’d rather that He just keep the trials and keep the salvations too, and just let them be.
Another question one might ask regards the particular way in which Moshe describes the conditions of the desert in the text of his speech. As he explains how Hashem was with them in the wilderness, he adds [8:14], “HaMolichacha BaMidbar HaGadol V’HaNora Nachash Saraf V’Akrav V’Tzima’on Asheir Ein Mayim HaMotzi Lecha Mayim MiTzur HaChalamish”-“[Hashem, the One] Who leads you through the great and awesome desert—[of] serpent, fiery serpent [Seraph], and scorpion, and thirst—which there is no water, Who brings forth water for you from the rock of flint.”
Did you notice any oddly superfluous words or phraseology in there? Before Moshe explains how Hashem obtained water for them from a rock, he describes that in the desert, there was “Tzima’on Asheir Ein Mayim”-“thirst which there was no water.”
Now, it seems that the simple explanation of this verse is that there was no water for the people to drink, until of course, Hashem got them water from a rock. But, what is the meaning of this double expression, a “thirst in which there is no water”? Moshe could have merely said that there was thirst there, or that there was no water. Either half of the expression should suffice. Why then does Moshe use this strange expression?
So, perhaps one could answer this second question in light of an earlier and more famous verse in the Torah which also seemed to contain an odd double expression in an ironically similar context, back in Sefer Bereishis.
In the story of the feud between Yosef and his brothers in Parshas Vayeishev [Bereishis 37], the Torah tells us that Yosef’s brothers plotted to kill him, but then decided instead to leave him in a pit so that they wouldn’t bear the guilt of murdering him directly with their own hands [37:18-24]. After they threw Yosef into the pit, the Torah famously describes the pit [37:24]; “…V’HaBor Reik Ein Bo Mayim”-“…and the pit was empty; there was no water.” Quite like our Pasuk in Parshas Eikev, something is extraneous here. If the Torah already mentioned that the pit was empty, it stands to reason that it also had no water in it. What then, was the Torah trying to emphasize?
There, Rashi asked the question and pointed to an obscure statement of Chazzal, stating that the Torah meant to say, through this double expression, that although there was no water in the pit, there was something else in the pit, apparently, snakes and scorpions [Shabbos 22A, Chaggigah 3A]. The obvious difficulty with this suggestion is that the Torah already said that the pit was empty. How can there be snakes and scorpions in the pit if the Torah said it was empty? If there were snakes and scorpions, why would the Torah basically lie and tell us that it was empty? Maybe the Torah should have left out the detail about there being no water, and have just told us that there were snakes and scorpions in there. But of course, at the same time, without this answer, we would still have the original question: If the pit really was entirely empty, why would the Torah need to tell us that there was no water in it?
So, apparently, Chazzal understood that the Torah wanted us to look at the pit is being empty, but did that by telling us also that there was no water. Meaning, although there is an apparent redundancy, Chazzal realized that the statement, “there was no water in it,” was coming to modify what it meant when it said that the pit was “empty.” The intended point is that since Yosef’s brothers wanted Yosef dead but they didn’t want to kill him with their own hands, they put him in a pit so he could die indirectly perhaps by thirsting to death. Thus, as far as they were concerned, the pit was empty of what mattered—it had no water. As long as he would die on his own, as long as they weren’t “spilling the blood” themselves. As long as there would be “no water” in there, they wouldn’t have to worry about (1) the possibility of drowning him themselves, or (2) him drinking to survive.
Now, as we return to our Pasuk in Parshas Eikev, it’s worth noting that, interestingly, not only is the context of the double expression similar to that of the Pasuk in Parshas Vayeishev as both share the theme of the lack of water, but the fact that Chazzal suggested that, in Vayeishev, there were snakes and scorpions there too also pulls the two verses together, as our verse openly mentions the presence of snakes and scorpions! Perhaps our verse in Eikev provides somewhat of a support for Chazzal’s assumption that empty and clearly parched pit in the middle of nowhere would be, like a desert, a viable habitat for snakes and scorpions.
But, enough with the pit for now. How does the Pasuk about the pit in Vayeishev help us decipher the strange Pasuk about the desert in Eikev? What does Moshe mean when he specifies that there was a thirst in which there was no water? The expression certainly is not coming to tell us here that there were snakes and scorpions, because firstly, that point is made explicitly in the text, and secondly, our verse does not refer to emptiness, but specifically to thirst. Most people do not thirst for snakes and scorpions. In fact, most people only have a thirst for water. So, then, what is the text coming to include? Based on the similar verse in Vayeishev, we would conclude that although there might’ve been a natural thirst for water in the desert, but there was something else there in the desert that the people did not lack, that they were already refreshed with and therefore did not have a thirst for. What was this other thing of which they had so much in stock while they were in the desert? What other thing could they possibly have been thirsty for, if not for water?
Although on our own, we might not be able to associate thirst with any natural substance other than water, the Navi in Amos, does make reference to another kind of thirst, “a thirst that is not for water…but to hear the word [matter] of Hashem” [8:11]. Perhaps, with this Pasuk in mind, one can suggest that in our verse, Moshe is hinting to the fact that although without Hashem’s miraculous supply of water, the B’nei Yisrael would thirst for it in the desert, they still would never have been thirsty for the Torah, the spiritual waters, the “word of Hashem,” as that would naturally have been provided for them as they followed Hashem and His prophet Moshe through the desert. Because the desert is a barren land in which the B’nei Yisrael constantly had to rely on Hashem for their material needs, that means that they had live by His Torah to live at all and be successful. In these conditions, they were naturally drinking from Hashem’s instruction and learned from Him while they were in the desert.
On the other hand, in a world where I have everything I need—where I have food, water, no scare of snakes and scorpions, I might feel that I’m so well off, I don’t need to devote myself to anything or anyone. I might think that don’t need the “word of Hashem” to protect me. Naturally, I would no longer be thirsty for water, but my soul, whether I’d know it or not, would still feel that thirst for spirituality. This kind of thirst, says Moshe Rabbeinu, purposely and naturally, did not exist in the wilderness because the people were, by Divine design, forced to look to Hashem. The B’nei Yisrael, here, naturally would be excelling in spirituality, and would therefore, be exposed to the “word of Hashem” wherever they would go. Thus, the word of Hashem, they would not be thirsty for.
With this insight about the B’nei Yisrael’s spiritual provisions in the desert, we can return to and answer the question as to why the B’nei Yisrael were subject to the conditions of the desert in the first place.
The larger issue we raised was that Hashem was the One who subjected the B’nei Yisrael to the potential dangers of the wilderness to begin with, and even if there was a Sin of the Spies which warranted the decree that the nation wander in the desert, there were only ten individuals involved in the actual sin, and if anyone else, it was only the adults who should bear any additional guilt and deserve a punishment. But, their children, whom Hashem needed in order to continue His plan, did not deserve the “dangerous travel conditions” and should not have been “obligated” by the mere fact that Hashem protected them from those conditions.
Before we answer this particular question, we have to realize that the question itself is certainly not limited to the experience of the wandering in the desert, but can be asked by the even more famous story of the Egyptian Exile, subjugation, and the subsequent Exodus too.
Indeed, the slavery in Egypt is subject to the same theological challenges, because we’re supposed to thank Hashem and devote ourselves to Him because He “brought us forth from Egypt,” yet, it was He Who allowed us to suffer there in the first place. As in the Sin of the Spies, only ten individuals, the ancestors of the tribes of Yisrael, Yosef’s brothers as we referenced earlier, were the real culprits involved in the sin of the Sale of Yosef (*and interestingly, both of these tragedies had begun with “evil reports” [See Bereishis 37:2 & B’Midbar 13:32]). Yet, all of their children ultimately suffered in Egypt. Why did Hashem punish their children with the conditions of the Egyptian Exile? And again, why did Hashem punish the children of the Spy-generation with the wandering?
The purpose of the conditions in the desert though, as we’ve described it, was not a way of punishing the children. The real evidence to this reality is in the larger theme of Moshe’s speech.
Before Moshe describes the rough conditions of the desert, he begins with a warning that the B’nei Yisrael not forget Hashem and neglect His commandments when, eventually, they would enter the Promised Land [Devarim 8:11-13]. Now, how could the people possibly forget Hashem after everything? Well, Moshe’s speech spells out how that could happen: First, they will become satiated and build nice houses [8:12], then, they’d become rich, and then haughty [8:13], and then ultimately, he warns [8:14], “V’Shachachta Es Hashem Elokecha HaMotzi’acha Mei’Eretz Mitzrayim …”-“And you will forget Hashem your G-d Who brought you forth from the land of Egypt…”
Putting Moshe’s entire speech together, what we have here is a concern that as long as all of the material needs of the people are naturally met with ease, as long as their Gashmius (physicality) is given to them on a silver platter, they will risk no longer feeling reliant on Hashem and they might eventually forget Hashem, His Torah and His Mitzvos. They will risk forgetting the basis of their relationship with Hashem, that He took them out of Egypt for the sake of making them His people.
But wait! Why did Hashem punish them through Egyptian slavery in the first place? Ah, but based on everything we’ve said until now, it is evident that Hashem was not “punishing” them. Indeed, we don’t serve Hashem merely because He gave us salvation from suffering—because He punished us and then saved us. We serve Hashem because He is G-d. What then was the purpose of the suffering? If it was not a punishment, then what was it? It was a refinement process! Hashem intended to use this Exile experience in order to educate the B’nei Yisrael, to teach them about Him and their need to be reliant on Him, to refine them into seekers of spirituality and servants of Hashem. While in the “iron crucible” of Egypt, the B’nei Yisrael would learn to rely on Hashem.
It is clearly for this reason as well that Hashem needed to the subject the B’nei Yisrael to the potentially harsh conditions of the wilderness for forty years. This experience too, served to refine the B’nei Yisrael and train them to rely on Hashem. By emplacing on them the reality of the materially unstable conditions of the desert, they were set up to focus on their Ruchnius, their spiritual responsibilities, in order to have their material needs provided for them. Only when they would first quench their thirst for the matter of Hashem would they truly live and merit the miraculous waters of the rock.
In the end, what is apparent is that even if someone has virtually all of his needs met in this world, he may be lacking what he truly needs to live life purposefully. We have to train ourselves to be sensitive to the dire needs, the thirst, of our souls—for the Torah, the word of Hashem, and never forget that thirst no matter what our worldly conditions are. When we do our part to quench this thirst, when we remember Hashem and that we are His children, He will be our Provider and quench our thirst.
May we all be Zocheh to remember Hashem, drink thirstily from the word of Hashem, and Hashem should continue to provide for us spiritually and physically and ultimately quench our thirst for Him in this desert of Exile by serving us the waters of the Geulah with the coming of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos Mevarchim Elul!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂