Parashat Behaalotecha: The Situation Does Not Have to be Perfect
The Torah in Parashat Behaalotecha (9:15-23) describes at length the system of Beneh Yisrael’s travels through the wilderness. We read that a special cloud hovered over the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and when it would rise, this signaled to Beneh Yisrael that they must journey from their current location. They would travel until the cloud once again descended, and the people would then encamp and remain in that spot until the next time the cloud rose.
The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe Nahmanides, Spain, 1194-1270) noted that whenever Beneh Yisrael encamped, they had no way of knowing for how long they would be remaining in that location. As the Torah tells us, there were times when the cloud remained in its lowered position just overnight, and there were times when it remained in that position for several years. Thus, Beneh Yisrael never knew ahead of time as they encamped when they would need to travel again. As they pitched their tents and unpacked their bags, they had no idea whether they would be traveling again the next day, or remaining in that place for several weeks, months of years.
Rav Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) writes that this is precisely the reason why the Torah saw fit to elaborate on this point in such great detail. The Torah wanted us to realize just how unstable and unpredictable the lives of our ancestors were in the wilderness, and that despite this constant state of instability, they nevertheless spent their time immersed in Torah study, learning from Moshe Rabbenu all day, every day. The lesson being conveyed is that we must be fully committed to Torah study even in periods of instability, and even when our situation is far from perfect. If Beneh Yisrael were able to learn and focus on Torah under such unstable conditions, when they never knew how much time they would remain in any given location, then we certainly can learn Torah even under circumstances that are uncomfortable or inconvenient.
As we have grown accustomed to the comforts and conveniences of the 21st century, too often people make all kinds of excuses why they are unable to learn Torah. It might be too cold or too hot. It could be that somebody was rushing in the morning and did not have his coffee. Or he received the wrong kind of coffee at the shop. Unmarried people feel that they cannot learn until they are married and feel more settled, whereas married people feel they cannot learn because of the pressures of raising a family. Businessmen excuse themselves from learning because their schedules are unpredictable, whereas professionals excuse themselves because they need to be available for the boss. Everyone has a different excuse. Beneh Yisrael’s experiences in the wilderness teach us that it is possible to devote time to Torah even under complicated and uncertain circumstances, and we must therefore avoid making excuses and instead make a genuine effort to allocate time for Torah regardless of our circumstances.
It is told that Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk (1853-1918) had to flee from his home towards the end of his life with his family as a result of World War I. He resided in a city called Minsk, and soon after his arrival, he was visited by a certain prominent Rabbi. This Rabbi noticed how the small residence was in a state of utter disarray, as the family had not yet had a chance to get everything arranged and get themselves settled. And yet, when this Rabbi arrived, he found Rav Chaim engrossed in a deep discussion of an intricate Talmudic concept together with his sons. Rav Chaim did not wait for everything to be perfect and orderly before devoting energies and intense concentration to his Torah studies. Torah learning was too high a priority for him to be put on hold while he got himself settled.
The lesson we learn from our ancestors’ experience in the wilderness is that conditions do not have to be ideal or in perfect order for us to spend time learning. Torah study is an obligation that applies at every stage of life, and even under less-than-ideal circumstances.