By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
במדבר הזה יפלו פגריכם יד:כט
Greatness of the Dor Ha’Midbar
On the one hand, the dor ha’midbar was punished extremely harshly, to the extent that there is a Tanna who holds that they have no place in Olam Ha’Ba (Sanhedrin 110b)! On the other hand, these are the very same people who are the ones that stood by Har Sinai and said naaseh v’nishma. The very same ones about whom Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu said, “Who revealed this secret to my children, that the Malachei Ha’Shareis use (Shabbos 88a)?” The very same Yidden!
The Gemara in Sanhedrin (73b) describes a private tour that a certain “nomadic Arab” gave to Rabbah bar bar Chanah. Among other things, Rabbah bar bar Chanah was shown those that died in the midbar. They were lying face up, their faces radiating contentment and happiness. Parenthetically, it is assur to sleep on your back (Niddah 14a, Shulchan Aruch Even Ha’Ezer 23:3, Mishnah Brurah 239:6); that position is reserved for the grave. Coming back, the faces of those that perished in the midbar were radiating contentment and happiness. Simchah is a function of shleimus ha’nefesh, so they must have had a certain spiritual wholeness that was infusing them with happiness.
The significance of their faces pointing upward is that it indicates that they were in a constant state of receiving – forever imbibing more and more and more. The Gra says that in Olam Ha’Zeh a person necessarily has to experience a state of fluctuation. He cannot just continue uninterrupted to receive more and more and more ruchniyus, because he eventually reaches a point of saturation and satiation. At that point, some type of a break must occur such that the person’s spiritual appetite can return. Then, he can resume absorbing more spiritual attainment. It cannot flow with one straight continuum; it has to go in stages. With ups and downs, plateaus and ascents. L’asid lavo, though, it will be constant. The Dor Ha’Midbar existed on that type of lofty plane.
The Gemara continues to relate that one of the deceased was lying with his leg bent, such that his knee was up. The “tour guide” was riding on a camel, while holding a spear upright. He was able to ride – atop his camel holding his spear pointing up – under that person’s knee and didn’t touch it at all. Rabbah bar bar Chanah cut off the corner of the deceased’s tallis so that he could show his colleagues – upon his return – how the people in the time of Moshe Rabbeinu tied their tzitzis, but the animals froze and he had no choice but to return it.
The Maharal explains that this whole account is to convey to us the supreme level of the Dor Ha’Midbar – who are called by Chazal as the Dor Deiah (Medrash Rabbah Vayikra 9:1) – that they were on a level that was greater than all of the generations that would ever come after them. How we see this, explains the Maharal, is as follows.
The tour guide was riding a camel, gamal, which is a derivative of the word gemilah, weaned. In other words, a camel represents complete coming into oneself; full independence and individual greatness. The
“tour guide”, then, symbolized the greatest, inherent levels of his generation. The upright spear that he was holding represents the height of accomplishment that the greatest individual of that generation could reach with the best tools available to him. And yet all that did not even touch the knee of the deceased under which he passed.
What is the significance of the knee? The halachah is that if a person’s leg got cut off above the knee, it makes him a treifah (Yevamos 121a). It’s a mortal wound; he will for sure die unless some type of procedure prevents that from happening. From this we see that a person’s primary life-energy extends downward only as far as the knee. The knee represents the lowest extremity of the person, as the external veneer reflects the internal reality. The symbolism of the “tour guide” not even touching the knee of the deceased under which he passed is that even the greatest person of that generation – with the greatest accomplishments possible then – did not even touch the lowest edge of those in the Dor Ha’Midbar. The people of the Dor Ha’Midbar were so great that the apex greatness of the Amoraim’s generation could not touch where the greatness of the Dor Ha’Midbar began.
Further underscoring this total separation of the relative levels of the generations was the fact that the animals froze when Rabbah bar bar Chanah tried to take the corner of the deceased’s garment. Even the objects belonging to the Dor Ha’Midbar were so totally removed from the people living in the generation of the Amoraim that the attempt to take possession of them resulted in a freeze of motion. It just could not go together and would not function.
Despite the negative actions that the people of the Dor Ha’Midbar did – and it is wholly possible that what they did was only considered so negative because of the supreme level that they were on – their essential, inherent status remained the greatest of the great. They are called the Dor Ha’Midbar because a midbar is the opposite of yishuv. Settlement indicates involvement with the material world, and midbar indicates disengagement from the material world. They were the Dor Deiah – the generation that was aloof of physicality, and was instead completely absorbed in the world of intellectual and spiritual endeavor. They were entirely unique in that they were the ones to whom Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu revealed himself at Har Sinai and who received the Torah.
The point of these words of Chazal and the Maharal is not to whitewash what they did. The main point is to underscore the fact that, although their actions were not in accordance with their exalted level, that essential level nonetheless remained what it was.
ויהיו בני ישראל במדבר וימצאו איש מקשש עצים ביום השבת טו:לב
Shabbos Breishis and Shabbos Shel Ha’Yachid
All the mefarshim grapple with the question of why the pasuk had to mention the fact that Bnei Yisrael were in the midbar. Why is that not completely superfluous? One of the very nice explanations proffered by Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin and others is based on the Gemara in Shabbos (6b). One Braisa says that a midbar is a reshus ha’rabim and another Braisa says that it is a karmelis. Abayei resolves this apparent contradiction by positing that one Braisa is talking about the time when Klal Yisrael were there in the midbar, and the other Braisa is talking about nowadays that it is basically empty. Rashi explains this differentiation as follows: inherently, a midbar is not a place of public travel, so it is not a reshus ha’rabim but a karmelis. That’s nowadays. When Klal Yisrael was there, though, their presence transformed it into a place of mass transit. Therefore, it was considered a reshus ha’rabim during that time. There is another Gemara in Shabbos (
Rabbeinu Bachayei gives four or five different explanations of this pasuk as well, and then he says that va’yihiyu Bnei Yisrael ba’midbar could be an allusion to the halachah of someone who is travelling in the wilderness and loses track of the days. The Gemara in Shabbos (69b) concludes that the way he must conduct himself is – as soon as he realizes he lost track – to immediately start counting six days, and keep Shabbos on the seventh from when he started counting. However, since he really does not know if any given day is Shabbos, he can only do however much melachah is necessary for him to survive; no matter what day it is, the seventh according to his count or otherwise. So, asks the Gemara, in what way is the seventh day of his count different from the rest? He is doing the same amount of melachah every day! The Gemara answers that his seventh day is different in that he recites the brachos of Kiddush and Hav
Rashi is of the opinion that, really, he should not have been allowed to make these brachos. However, so that a person in such a situation should not come to forget that there is such a thing as Shabbos, Chazal obligated him to say Kiddush and Havdalah on the seventh day according to his count. This is similar to the Gemara that says that we make Kiddush and daven the tef
The Rambam (Hilchos Shabbos 2:22), though, explains it differently. Here is how he puts down the halachah: “Someone who is travelling in the wilderness, and does not know which day is the day of Shabbos, counts six [days] from the day that he erred, and is mekadeish the seventh, and recites birchas ha’yom on that day, and makes Havdalah on motzaei Shabbos.” Note that the Rambam says that on this individual’s seventh day, he does two things: a) “mekadeish the seventh”, and b) recites birchas ha’yom. Accordingly, the most straightforward, sensible way to understand what the Rambam means by this is that “mekadeish the seventh” is referring to Kiddush, and “birchas ha’yom” is referring to the teffilos of Shabbos. In addition to making Kiddush, he also davens the Shmoneh Esrei of Shabbos. Also noteworthy is that the Rambam starts off employing the word shvii in reference to this individual’s seventh day, but ends off by calling it motzaei Shabbos. No less significant is the fact that the Rambam does not give the slightest indication that this individual’s Kiddush is merely a mechanism of ensuring that he not come to forget that there is such a thing called Shabbos. The upshot of all this is that it is seems pretty clear from the Rambam that he holds that this lost individual’s recital of Kiddush, Shabbos davening, and Havdalah is not some sort of dispensational/no-other-choice enactment, rather it is mei’ikar ha’din – inherently apt.
As such, it is most reasonable to posit that the Rambam is going like Rabbeinu Bachayei who writes as follows: “Anyone who is travelling in the distant wilderness and does not know what day it is, he is obligated to keep Shabbos and may not exempt himself therefrom…the reason for this al derech ha’emes is that every one out of seven is Shabbos…[the pasuk is] an allusion that anyone who is travelling and does not know which day is Shabbos that he is chayav misah if he does not keep Shabbos even in the wilderness.” Rabbeinu Bachayei’s emphasis that he is chayav misah if he does not keep his Shabbos in the wilderness makes it clear that he holds that the obligation of the lost individual to make one day out of every seven identifiable as Shabbos is d’Oraysa.
What you see from here is that there are two types of Shabbos. There is Shabbos Breishis which is the inherent, essential day of Shabbos, but then there is also a new concept here – for someone who nebach doesn’t have Shabbos Breishis – of an individualized Shabbos; a personal and personalized Shabbos. Like the Rambam says, this lost individual is mekadeish the shvii – when he first arrives at that day it is merely the seventh of his count. However, by the time the day is over, he is making Havdalah on motzaei Shabbos. In other words, by dint of the fact that he observed that seventh day as Shabbos, it becomes endowed with the kedusha of Shabbos. He makes it into Shabbos!
The possibility of an individual Shabbos fits very well into the text of Kiddush. By all the Yamim Tovim, we find the expression ha’yom – this day. When it comes to the Kiddush of Shabbos, though, there is no ha’yom. We don’t say “today is Shabbos”. We simply declare the eminence and kedusha of Shabbos. Furthermore, nowhere do we find that someone lost in the wilderness has to follow some system of keeping Yomtov. We do not find that if he is lost there the whole year that he should make some type of personal counting regarding when to eat matzah and recite the Haggadah. Because you can’t make such a day! It’s only that day and that’s it. But by Shabbos, this pasuk is alluding to the fact that there can be such a thing as an individualized Shabbos – that if he nebach doesn’t have Shabbos Breishis, he can make his own Shabbos, the one out of the seven.