desert travels

Free translation of a chasidic discourse by

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812)

by Rabbi Yossi Marcus[1]


This week's Torah portion is entitled Maasei, or Travels. It recounts the 42 travels the Israelites took during their forty-year stay in the desert. The following discourse discusses the significance of their “wanderings,” and its implication for us today.

The Land of Israel is considered the holiest place in the world, and Jerusalem its holiest city. “Holy,” in this sense, means a minimum of concealment of the Divine. In other lands, Divinity is seen as if through a curtain that conceals the light of the sun. Outside the Land of Israel, one can perceive only an analogy, a metaphor of the Divine. But in the Land of Israel, the Divine light shines as if through a clear glass and without the concealment of a metaphor.

(Arizal says as much in kabbalistic terminology: In other lands the Divine light of Atzilut, the loftiest world, is enclothed in Briah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah, the three lower worlds, before it reaches the earthly plane. In the Land of Israel, however, the Divine light does not clothe itself in Asiyah, the lowest and most materialistic world, rather, it “travels” through it in a manner called “maavar,” or “passing through,” not “hitlabshut,” “enclothement.”

[maavar and hitlabshut. There are two methods of transmission or channeling, one in which the energy is not affected by the channel (nor the channel by the energy) and one in which the energy is colored by its channel. For example, when a thought is put down on paper, the pen is the channel. In this case, the thought is not affected by the pen and the pen is not affected by the thought, since the thought “passes through” the pen, in the manner of maavar. On the other hand, when the thought is passed on through a human being (who understands the thought and does not merely repeat it mechanically) the thought is colored by the personality and psyche of the transmitter. The person is also affected by the thought, since it passes through him in the manner of hitlabshut, “enclothement.”]

Hence the sages pronounced the air and earth of  the other lands to be impure,[2] since Asiyah embodies the most extreme concealment of Divinity. It is there that the impure kelipot thrive and act as the root for the evil inclination. Thus the Divine Names associated with Asiyah are Keil and Ad-nai, which are numerically equivalent to Tzav (96), which in turn is associated with idolatry.[3] Idolatry does not necessarily refer to bowing to an idol, rather it refers to perceiving anything as operating outside the Divine reality, as in the verse, “My power and the strength of my hand have made this for me..…”[4] It is the concealment of Asiyah that allows for such a perspective.

In the land of Israel, however, the lowest enclothement of the Divine light is the third world, Yetzirah, where the Divine  Light is not nearly as filtered.)

[That one can be in the Land of Israel and not sense any of this is the result of one's own, subjective concealments. The tzadikim, however, throughout the generations, always yearned to travel to the Land of Israel where they would sense its spiritual superiority.]

This is the meaning of the Midrashic saying:[5] “The Land of Israel is destined to expand to all the lands.” And “Jerusalem will expand to all of the Land of Israel.” This means that in the Messianic era the spirit of impurity “will be removed from the earth”[6] and all the lands will be on the spiritual level that the Land of Israel is at now. They will all receive the Divine light without the interference of Asiyah. The Land of Israel, in turn, will be on the level where Jerusalem is at now etc.

[This transformation is accomplished by the fulfillment of Torah throughout the lands and is indeed the purpose of the Exile, wherein the Jewish nation has been scattered to all four corners of the globe. The fulfillment of the precepts of the Torah in a given place serves to reveal the Divine reality in that place and minimize the concealment of Asiyah, making it more like the natural state of the Land of Israel.

Hence the response of the Tzemach Tzedek to one who had asked him about moving to the Land of Israel: “Mach duh Eretz Yisrael” “Transform this place into the Land of Israel.”]  

If Jerusalem is the holiest place in the world, the desert is its polar opposite. Holiness is characterized by life, giving, production. The opposite of holiness is death, selfishness, stagnation.

[Thus a corpse imparts ritual impurity. Similarly, during menstruation, a woman is considered ritually impure, since she has experienced the “death” of a potential birth.]

A desert is not hospitable to life. It does not contain the elements necessary for survival. This lack of physical life reflects a dearth of spiritual sustenance. Thus the sand of the desert is unfertile and is therefore unfit for use in certain mitzvot[7] because it does not give.

[When Eliezer, servant of Abraham, sought a wife for Isaac—the woman who would be one of the mothers of the nation that would bring the Divine light to the world—he chose Rebbeca when he recognized in her the nature of generosity when she gave him and his camels water to drink.

Esau, by contrast, the antithesis of holiness, is famous for his demand, “Give, give.” Similarly, Timna, concubine of Eliphaz,[8]  was not accepted into Abraham’s family, because as her name suggests (timna means to “withold”), she was of a selfish nature. (The Talmud[9] recounts that the wicked Menasheh[10] would ridicule certain verses of the Torah which seemed trivial in his eyes. The verse that states that Timna was a concubine was one of them. In response, the sages explained that this verse demonstrates the prestige in which the family of Abraham was held: Timna, a member of a royal family, sought to convert to the faith of Abraham but was not accepted. She thereupon went and became a concubine of Eliphaz, son of Esau, saying, "Better a maidservant to this nation than princess to another!")]

The desert is therefore seen in Kabbalah as the source for Divine concealment in the world. It is described as a place filled with “snake, serpent and scorpion,”[11] which in Kabbalah refers to the three impure kelipot

The travels of the Israelites through the desert, at their birth as a nation, served as a precursor to all that they would accomplish throughout their history: reveal the Divine reality in a world of concealment. Their forty-year stay in the desert served to subdue the kelipot at their source. This “opened the channels” of support for the task of subduing Divine concealment throughout the world, and throughout history.

Now the travels of the Israelites in the desert can be divided in to two general stages: the pre-Sinai travels and the post-Sinai travels. The are two major differences between them: 1) After Sinai the Israelites were led by the Ark, which contained the tablets. When the ark traveled, Moses would say[12]: “Rise, O G-d, and let Your enemies be scattered and let Your foes flee from Your presence.”

[This verse is recited in the synagogue when the Torah is removed from the Ark. In addition to its literal meaning, the verse refers to spiritual enemies that conceal Divinity. So the fact that the Ark led them through the desert meant that the Ark neutralized the negative forces within the desert, both physical and spiritual. Similarly, when the Ark is removed from the Ark in the synagogue, a similar phenomonon occurs.]

2) Before Sinai, the Israelites had only the seven commandments commanded to them at Marah, shortly after their exodus from Egypt.[13] These included the commandment of Shabbos as well as the commandment to honor one's parents. (Thus, when these commandments are stated in the Ten Commandments in parashat Vaetchanan[14] they are followed by “as G-d commanded you.” As Rashi explains, they had already received these commandments at Marah.)

So before Sinai, the Israelites were equipped with far less spiritual energy with which to subdue the desert.

The reason for this is that before Sinai they had not yet gone deep into the desert. They were in the desert, but close enough to civilization so that the impure energy of the desert was not as intense. Hence, the seven mitzvot received at Marah (as well as the Manna) was enough to grant the Israelites the power to subdue the desert. After Sinai, when they penetrated deep into the desert, far from human civilization, they needed the Ark as well as the entire Torah to fulfill their task.

[Similarly, in our lives, our foray into the spiritual deserts must be accompanied by a symmetrical degree of spiritual sustenance.]


[1] Likutei Torah, Maasei, 89b ff.

[2] Shabbat 15a.

[3] Sanhedrin 52b; Zohar 3:111b.

[4] Deut. 8:17.

[5] See Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah, 503 (p. 405).

[6] Zachariah 13:2.

[7] Chulin 88b.

[8] See Genesis 36:12 and Rashi there.

[9] Sanhedrin 99b.

[10] King of Judah for 55 years.

[11] Deut. 8:15.

[12] Numbers 10:35.

[13] Exodus 15:22-27.

[14] Deut. 5:6-19.



Redesign and implementation - By WEB-ACTION