Parshat Bamidbar, Numbers 1:1–4:20
What are the basic tools one needs to be able to acquire Torah and be successful in its study? How can it become a part of our lives?
The answer lies in the first verse in this week’s Parshat Bamidbar, “Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert in the Tent of Meeting.”
The Medrash Rabba questions this verse: Why is it important for the Torah to tell us the location of this conversation between God and Moshe? The sages derive from here that the Torah was given through three different mediums: fire, water and desert. In the classic commentary Lekach Tov (lit. Good Pieces), an explanation of this is quoted from the Ketav Sofer, Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (1815–1871). The Ketav Sofer explains practically how we can implement these three elements of fire, water and desert.
Water: Torah is often compared to water. Our sages teach us that just as water constantly is drawn to the lowest place, so to the Torah will always leave the haughty person and go to the person who is humble and modest. In fact, it is for this very reason the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, which was the lowest of the mountains in the area. A powerful lesson was thus taught. The Torah could be given, and continues to reside, only in a place of humility. Haughtiness has no place in the Torah’s scheme.
Fire: The verse in the book of Mishlei tells us, “Torah is the light.” Torah is referred to as light because it illuminates for all mankind the greater purpose of life, and it serves as our guiding light in an otherwise dim and oftentimes bleak world.
Desert: This third element refers to the idea of a lack of physicality, symbolized by the emptiness of a desert, barren and distant from the pleasures of the world. It was for this reason that the Jewish people received the manna in the desert, precisely because the manna was a food that had no physical or tangible appeal. Yet, it gave the Jewish people the necessary nourishment and sustained them to be able to live their lives and serve G-d. Our nation learned early on that living with luxuries is not necessary to accomplish one’s objective in life, and excesses can actually impede proper service of G-d.
Where do we see that the Jewish people had these three ingredients when they received the Torah? The Talmud in Tractate Ta’anis teaches us that in the Sinai Desert the Jewish people merited three leaders, and because of these three great people they merited three beneficial gifts. The leaders were Moshe (Moses), Aaron and Miriam, and the three gifts were the miracles of the Rock/Well that traveled alongside and provided water to the Jewish people; the Pillar of Smoke and fire, which protected and guided the Jewish people in the desert; and the manna, which gave them nourishment. Each one of these three gifts came because of a specific leader.
We merited the Rock because of the merits of Miriam, the Pillar because of Aaron and the Manna because of Moshe. These three elements are a necessity for Torah study and life, and as a nation we needed them in the desert. In our daily lives we strive and aspire to, and indeed relive, the way our ancestors lived in order to be able to merit the Torah as they did. May we all merit to study the Torah and live by its tenets. Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach! JN
Rabbi Gavriel Goetz is head of school of Yeshiva High School of Arizona.