And they traveled from Refidim and camped in the Sinai wilderness… Numbers 33:15
It is written in our holy books that these verses [telling the travels and campsites of the Israelites] hint at their spiritual progress, from one level to the next. Now when the yetzer hara tries to mislead you, taking you off the good path, it starts by putting laziness into your heart. If you don’t fight it with all your strength and succeed in zerizut (1), then in your laziness you will put off rising in the morning to serve your Creator in prayer, and then you will put off Torah study, and then because you lack Torah, you will fall victim to all sorts of impure desires (God forbid!). See what a little laziness can lead to!
This is really what our verses are talking about. “They traveled from Refidim,” meaning “weakness” of “idle hands” (2), “and camped in the wilderness of Sinai,” that is, Torah (3), “and traveled from the wilderness of Sinai,” meaning that, now that Torah had become part of them, they needed nothing else to overcome their yetzer hara. Then “they camped in Kivrot Hata’avah,” meaning “graves of lust,” for they had overcome their evil desires and buried them, “and they camped in Hatzerot,” meaning “open spaces,” for now that they had gained control of themselves, they could go out into the world without fear. This is what makes a tzaddik, a righteous person: one who can walk among others in the streets and the shops and not worry about every temptation, because his heart is in his hand and the awe of God is on his face. Then comes “camping at Ritmah,” meaning “embers” (4), for by serving God in this way you stoke the embers of your heart into a blazing fire of love and awe of God. Afterwards “they camped in Rimon Peretz,” meaning “broken pomegranate.” This hints at the story in the Talmud, that once Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate; he ate the inside and threw away the peel (5). When you walk around this world on fire with love and awe of God, then you can learn how to serve God from everything you encounter, even the most mundane things. So, like Rabbi Meir, you take the sweet and wholesome inside, and throw away the indigestible peel. “They camped at Libnah,” which means “whiteness” or “moon” (6), for as you grow in your divine service you reach a higher level yet, one of purity and beneficence, moving God to pour out divine kindness onto you and the whole world.
1) zerizut is what my parents would call “hop-to-it-iveness,” that spark inside you that makes you get up and go, which Jewish ethical literature often describes as the foundation of true service. 2) Refidim רפידים is read as rifui yadayim, ריפוי ידים , “weakness or idleness of hands.” 3) Not only because Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, but because the sages see the wilderness as a place particularly suited to the giving and receiving of Torah: it is low and flat, teaching us the importance of humility; it is ownerless and anyone can pass there, teaching us the importance of letting go of ego and pride; the fact that it does not belong to any one person or even nation underscores the universality and accessibility of Torah; lastly, and strangely, the word for desert, midbar, is built on the root for “speech, word,” making it a fitting place for the word of God to be spoken. 4) Ritmah, רתמה , shares a root with rotem, רותם, the broom plant, which is used to make a fire because it burns so quickly, as in the phrase here, k’gakhalei rotem, כגחלי רותם,”like embers of a broom fire.” 5) This story, found in Hagigah 15b, is brought into the Talmudic conversation as an example (in metaphor) of how Rabbi Meir took what was worthwhile from the teachings of a heretical rabbi and discarded the rest. 6) All three words are built on the same root, which looks different in the English words but is almost identical in the Hebrew: לבנה, לבנה.