Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar asks, “Why does Adonai give the Torah in the Wilderness?” It goes on to explain that Torah is given in fire, water and wilderness. This is to teach us that, just as each of these is free, so the learning of Torah is given freely.
Another approach to the Midrash is to understand fire, water and the wilderness as forces within man. Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, for example, in his Shem MiShmuel, writes that fire refers to man's heart, the inner fire that aspires to reach God; water refers to his mind, which adds an element of patience and reason in approaching the divine; and wilderness refers to the renunciation of worldly pleasures that interfere with one's spiritual pursuits. All three elements, he writes, are necessary for the study of Torah. I would like to extend this metaphor to examine the potential hindrances to our growth and more importantly our capacity to endure and overcome these obstacles.
fire to wildfire
It is no accident that pictures of fire representing the holiness and passion of the Creator surround the giving of Torah. In fact, when first confronting Moses, the Holy One appears in a bush that is a blaze, a “dress rehearsal” for the soon coming denouement on the very same mountain. I think it therefore behooves us to meet Hashem with similar excitement and passion. What should not be lost on us though is the fact that when Hashem appears amidst the flames of passion neither bush nor mountain are consumed. It does not take long though for Israel’s passions to turn from flame to wildfire, as evidenced in the debauchery around the worship of the Golden Calf. Hashem matches Israel’s fire (no pun intended) and the result is destruction. Lesson learned; fire is best when properly contained and not burning out of control.
water to deluge
If water is symbolic of the human mind it also represents our capacity to meet our basic needs. It is the human intellect that allows us to farm and gather, build and preserve. Humans are the only species on Earth that can communicate across the globe, or even know that we are on a globe. But it is also the pride of intellect that often keeps us from our Creator and puts us in a state of disharmony with Him, other humans and the Earth that preserves us. While it is the cool waters of our intellect that is capable of controlling the fiery passions of our hearts, our minds also have the capacity for quenching the fire of our love for Hashem and others. Like unrestrained fire, a flood of hubristic intellect can cause unintended pain and loneliness.
wilderness to wind
So it is in the wilderness of Sinai that Israel learns how to find balance between unrestrained passion for their God and over-reliance on their intellects. It is in the wilderness that humanity learns that “Man does not live by bread alone.” As our ancestors had to traverse dry, arid terrain, so we too go through places and periods of barrenness, when it appears that neither head nor heart can prevail. We are asked to forego the pleasures and assurances of this world upon which we have become reliant. It is in these arid places and silent moments that we are made aware that the true provision is “…every word that proceeds from the mouth of Hashem.” But how do we endure when the heat of the day feels greater than our capacity to go on? How do we remain diligent when our passion has burned out and our intellect dried up? How do we trust when all we can hear is the syntax of silence? This is when we must recognize a fourth element, the wind of the Spirit. From the outset the very breath of Hashem animated our souls. When we choose to trust in the renewing life of Yeshua the wind of His Spirit ventilates the arid stretches of our lives like a cooling breeze.
With fiery passion and minds tempered by Torah, we can diligently continue through the wilderness of life empowered by the Spirit of Hashem.