March 5, 2009


From Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam (Maimonides), Sefer HaMaspik (“The Guide to Serving God”), translated by Rabbi Yaakov Wincelberg (Feldheim Books), p. 497-501. Although footnotes have been omitted, we have added explanatory information in parentheses.


Total Retreat, through separation from the city and isolation in deserts, wastelands, mountains, and such, is related in the stories of the prophets and their disciples. We will inform -- or remind -- you of these stories. It is common knowledge and a tradition that this was the way of Chanoch, though it is not explicitly written. His way of life, described as, "And Chanoch walked with God" (Bereishis 5:24), mostly entailed wandering and solitude. And our forefather Avraham said to his two attendants, "And I and the lad will go until there, and we will prostrate ourselves and return to you" (ibid. 22:5). A discerning reader will infer that Avraham had a prior habit of separating at times even from the members of his own household. It is clear that our forefather Yitzchak maintained this spiritual practice, as it says, 'And Yitzchak went out to stroll among the trees of the field" (ibid. 24:63). And the only reason the Patriarchs and their children, who followed their ways, chose shepherding, as opposed to other occupations, was that this afforded them the opportunity for retreat in the pasture, far from the cities.

Anyone thoughtful will be able to reflect upon the situation of our forefather Yaakov. He endured fourteen years of shepherding when he worked for Rachel and Leah, as he said, "For fourteen years, I served you for your two daughters" (ibid. 31:41). Yet when Lavan confronted him, asking how he would like to receive his wages – “Define your wages and I will give” (ibid. 30:28) -- Yaa kov did not choose silver or gold or anything else except for the opportunity to return to tend the sheep – “Give me nothing. Do this for me: allow me to return to shepherd and guard your sheep” (v. 31). He [embraced the life of a shepherd] despite the hardship, as he mentioned, "In the day, the heat consumed me, and the frost at night, and sleep escaped my eyes” (ibid. 31:40). This occupation suited his spiritual path, while any other endeavor would have opposed or hindered it.

The Master of the Prophets, Moshe, the servant of God and His messenger, tended sheep and penetrated deep into the wilderness – “And Moshe tended the sheep of Yisro, his father-in-law… and he led the sheep far into the wilderness, and he came to the mountain of God at Chorev” (Shemos 3:1). This was not due to a lack of grazing land around Midian, but rather in order to engage in his path of inward retreat, which conferred Encounter to a degree that none other than he, of blessed memory, could truly understand. And do not challenge me with the words of the translator Onkelos, who explained the verse, “And he led the sheep far into the wilderness” [as] “And he led the sheep to a suitable pasture,” for you know the statement of the Sages, “A verse may be explained in many ways” (Sanhedrin 34a). In fact, the Sages’ commentary frequently differs from that of Onkelos, as investigation would prove.

God said to Moshe, “Ascend the mountain toward Me” (Shemos 24:12); "No one may ascend with you…" (ibid. 34:3). This was to allow total retreat, through which Moshe would achieve the desired Encounter, and God would bestow upon him that which He did. Because Moshe desired solitude, he later moved his Tent of Meeting out of the camp, as it says, “And Moshe took the tent and placed it outside the camp, far from the camp [and he called it the ‘Tent of Meeting’]" (ibid. 33:7).

The generation of the desert collectively retreated from the inhabited world for forty years, in order to achieve Encounter with God -- “I led you for forty years in the desert... so that you would know that I am the Almighty, your God" (Devarim 29:4-5). And God said in the words of His prophet, “[I remember...] how you followed Me in the desert in a barren land" (Yirmeyahu 2:2). Eliyahu and Elisha would frequently isolate themselves on Mount Carmel for the sake of retreat, as is evident (Melachim I, 18:42; Melachim II, 2:25, 4:25). And through his extended and total retreat, Eliyahu achieved Encounter, as it says:

"And he walked in the wilderness... [for forty days and forty nights], until the mountain of God, Chorev... And behold, the voice of God addressed him and said, 'Why are you here, Eliyahu?'... [And God passed by him]... " (Melachim I, 19:4-18)

Even Bilaam employed retreat to achieve Encounter, as it says, “And I will meet [God's Presence] over there” (Bemidbar 23:15). And Onkelos translates “he went shefi” (v. 3) as “he went alone.” Similarly, it says, “[Bilaam] turned his face toward the desert” (ibid. 24:1). And all the disciples of the prophets practiced retreat in distant places, such as Rachel's Tomb (Shmuel I, 10:2), Beis-El (Melachim II, 2:23), Jericho (ibid. 2:15), and near the Jordan River (ibid. 6:2), as is clear to one who reads the verses carefully.