Parsha Ponders - Fire, Water & Desert
by Rabbi Rafi Wolfe
“Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting…” (Numbers 1:1)
The Jewish nation, ever since our inception at the Exodus from Egypt and the National Revelation at Mount Sinai, has been pursued by the enemies of Torah. Throughout the generations there were always new means created to try to extinguish the flame of our tradition. Our national memory recalls that these efforts have grown stronger and mightier, seemingly beyond the boundaries of nature. We know it was not only one Jew who gave up their life to preserve the Torah, but myriads. Yet, our enemies’ efforts to slaughter us have proven futile, as the Torah is just as present as ever.
What is our nations’ secret to such superhuman strength? How have Jews always been able to refuse to budge and stand up for what is right even under threat of death? The key is to examine how the Torah was given. Our Sages tell us that the Torah was given to us with fire, with water and in the desert (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7; Midrash Tanchuma Bamidbar 6). It was given to us with fire, as the verse says that Mount Sinai was burning with fire (Exodus 19:18). It was given to us with water, as the verse says that at that time the Heavens and clouds dripped water (Judges5:4). Finally, it was given to us in the wilderness, as the verse says that Hashem spoke to Moshe in the Wilderness of Sinai. These three things symbolize the ability of the Jewish People to be moser nefesh, to give up our lives for what is right.
Fire reminds us of our forefather Avraham. Our Sages teach us that he was ordered to bow down to an idol, or that he would be thrown into a fiery furnace. Avraham defiantly rejected any form of idol worship and was consequently thrown into the fiery furnace (see Rashi to Genesis 11:28). This showed tremendous strength of character. A miracle occurred and Avraham was not harmed. However, one could perhaps argue that Avraham was a unique character in history. Who says that the Jewish nation has any remote connection to his superhuman abilities?
As a response to this we are told that the Torah was given with water. This reminds us of the splitting of the sea. As the Jewish people were escaping Egypt, they hit a dead end, with the sea in front of them and the Egyptians quickly approaching from behind. Moshe told the Jews to travel nonetheless, and they fearlessly proceeded forwards. Every member of the nation risked their life for the sake of Hashem, and the sea miraculously split. However, that was a one-time majestic show of faith. Who says it is something that would or could last, having any relevance to us today?
To this, we are told that the Torah was given in the wilderness. What’s the significance of this? The wilderness is not a safe place. There are snakes and scorpions. There are no natural resources, such as food and water. The Jews left Egypt without the proper provisions. They ended up wandering seemingly aimlessly for forty years. The entire time, the Jews remained strong with their love of Hashem. They were not afraid of the elements. Although they were technically endangering their life by following His word, they knew that Hashem would take care of them. This reliance on Hashem in the face of danger made a tremendous impression on generations to come.
Now we can understand why our Sages say that the Torah was given with fire, water and in the wilderness. These three things symbolize three pivotal moments in Jewish history where a grand display of mesirut nefesh, the ability to surrender one’s life, was performed. They ingrained in our “spiritual DNA” the ability to withstand all trials, allowing the Torah to last for all generations.
This essay is based on the introduction to Ohr HaMeir, the responsa of Rav Meir Shapiro, the founder of the Daf Yomi movement