The Torah portion of Bamidbar begins with the words, “The L-rd spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting…”
The commentaries offer several explanations as to why the Torah specifies that this communication took place in the Sinai desert.
- The Ramban says that this teaches us that the counting of the Jews mentioned in this Torah portion occurred while they were still camped at Mount Sinai, as opposed to the count which took place 39 years later when the Jewish people were camped at the plains of Moav on the banks of the Jordan river.
- The Ibn Ezra says that the Torah is informing us that although the Jewish people were still camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, the revelation to Moshe came not on the mountain, but rather in the Sinai Desert, in the Mishkan (tabernacle). The Midrash expands on this and points out that up until the building of the Mishkan, G-d communicated with Moshe in various locations as needed. First at the burning bush, then in Midian, then in Egypt,and finally at Mount Sinai. Once the Mishkan was built, however, G-d chose to communicate with Moshe only in the privacy of the Mishkan in keeping with the verse, “The honor of the princess is within.”
- The Midrash says that the verse points out that the Torah was given in the desert to teach us an important lesson: Just as the desert has no owner and is open to all, so, too, the Torah belongs to every Jew. Anyone can study it and achieve great heights in doing so, as the prophet Isaiah said, “Let all those who are thirsty come to water (i.e., Torah). In addition, in order to acquire Torah one must treat himself like a desert, i.e., forgo the comforts and amenities of life in his pursuit of Torah knowledge. Another Midrash says that the Torah is compared to a desert because just as a desert has no end (as far as the eye can see), so too there is no end to the depth of understanding found in the Torah.
Fire, Water and Desert
points out that the Torah was given with fire (i.e. there was fire on top of the mountain) and water (i.e., there were rain clouds and rain on the mountain) and in the desert.
- With fire as it says, “Mount Sinai was completely covered in smoke because G-d had descended on it with fire.”
- With water as it says, “Also the heaven dripped and the clouds dripped with water.”
- In the desert as it says, “And G-d spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert.”
The commentaries explain that we can derive many lessons relevant to the Torah from fire, water and the desert.
Dedication Despite Success or Adversity
The Ktav Sofer
explains that we learn from this that a person must hold strong to the principles of the Torah no matter the circumstances. Whether the sun of success is shining on him as symbolized by fire which travels upwards, or if he is in a downward spiral as symbolized by water which flows down, or if he needs to leave his home and find new lodging as symbolized by the desert, one must maintain his devotion to Hashem and his commitment to the Torah and the Mitzvot.
Keys to Success in Torah
In addition, the Ktav Sofer
explains that these three things allude to the ingredients necessary for success in Torah.
- Water, which flows downward, represents that fact that the Torah can be retained only by humble people.
- The desert, too, represents humility as it is open to all. Also, just as the Jewish people in the desert ate the manna and had no delicacies, so, too, one must spurn the comforts of life to be successful in studying Torah. Finally, just as the Jewish people were miraculously sustained in the desert, so, too, G-d sustains those who are involved in Torah study even in miraculous ways. An example of that is how He sustained Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son who were studying in the cave for 13 years.
- Fire, which gives light, represents how the Torah brightens our paths and shows us how to lead our lives. The Talmud says that the Torah written by G-d was black fire engraved onto white fire. The black fire represents those who study Torah but do not maintain a high standard of observance of the mitzvot. Because they are perceived by the community as Torah scholars, their sins have a more negative impact on the community. They are therefore punished to a greater degree than an ordinary person for the same sin. This is symbolized by the fire (Torah) of blackness (punishment). The white fire on the other hand, represents the blessing and success that G-d bestows upon those who study and observe the Torah.
The Candle, Light and Path of Life
The Sfat Emet
explains that the fire, water and desert correspond to the three aspects of Torah discussed in Proverbs 6:23 “כִּי נֵר מִצְוָה וְתוֹרָה אוֹר וְדֶרֶךְ חַיִּים תּוֹכְחוֹת מוּסָר” – “For a mitzvah is a candle, and the Torah is light, and disciplining rebukes are the path of life;”
- Fire corresponds to “נֵר מִצְוָה- a mitzvah is a candle” and refers to the zeal with which a person must strive to rise upwards and cleave to G-d through the Torah and mitzvot just like a fire (on a candle) leaps upwards.
- Water corresponds to “תוֹרָה אוֹר – the Torah is light” referring to the shining of G-d’s holiness that reaches downwards to us, from above to below, through the Torah. Light (from the sun) also travels downwards, from above to below, as water does.
- The desert, a place that is ownerless and represents humility, corresponds to “וְדֶרֶךְ חַיִּים תּוֹכְחוֹת מוּסָר – disciplining rebukes are the path of life.” This refers to the general attitude one must have towards G-d and His Torah, that we are completely nullified to His rule.
explains that the Torah was given in the desert to indicate that it is beyond the laws of nature. Some wish to explain the Torah in natural ways and say, for example, that the kashrut laws are for health reasons. This is not the ultimate truth. Essentially, the Torah is completely beyond nature. It was given in the desert, a place that is uninhabitable by nature, to point out that the Torah is not in the realm of the natural. Thus, both the rewards of the Torah, symbolized by water which is nourishing, and the punishments of the Torah, symbolized by fire which is destructive, are beyond any natural explanation.
Be Open to Experience Love and Fear of G-d
The Kozhnitzer Maggid
cites the Zohar which says that according to some opinions the Torah was given from G-d’s right hand while according to others it was given from His left. In fact, both opinions are correct. The right hand indicates a revelation that arouses one’s love of G-d while the left hand indicates a revelation that awakens one’s awe of G-d. Both of these revelations can reach a person through studying Torah. The desert, an ownerless place, represents that a person must be nullified to the will of G-d, and through this he will be able to experience both love of G-d, symbolized by water, and awe of Him, symbolized by fire.
Enthusiasm and Apathy
Rabbi Yisrael Freidman, the second Chortkover Rebbe, explained the symbolism of the fire, water and the desert in several ways:
Water indicates that when a person is confronted with a sin or an unwanted desire, he should behave coldly towards it, like water. On the other hand, when a person has an opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah such as when he is about to begin to pray or study Torah, he should be filled with enthusiasm and zeal like fire, and proceed to perform the mitzvah without delay. If a person succeeds in achieving these two disparate approaches, he should not become arrogant as a result but should remain humble, as symbolized by the desert. He should recognize that he is still very far from serving G-d with his full capacity.
Humility – the Key to Spiritual Growth
In addition, he explained,
fire, water and the dessert all represent humility, fire and water because of their destructive capabilities and the desert because it is open to all. When the Jewish people received the Torah they attained a very elevated state. And the only way that a person can reach a vastly higher level is if he is absolutely humble, similar to a seed which must rot before it can take root. The Torah was therefore given on Mount Sinai, the mountain that represents humility, and by Moshe Rabeinu, the paradigm of humility.
Humility with a Touch of Pride
Another explanation of the Tchortkover Rebbe was:
Before a person does any mitzvah or studies Torah, he must picture that he is standing before G-d Himself. This must engender the person with a feeling of true humility. But before he actually performs the mitzvah, he must have a small amount of pride and recognize that he is an important being, that G-d cares about him, and that everything he does has a tremendous impact on the entire world. If a person does not have this pride, he might never accomplish anything as he may consider his actions inconsequential. After fulfilling the mitzvah, however, one must return to one’s humble attitude. To be able to accomplish this, one should consider how Mount Sinai and Moshe Rabbeinu remained humble despite the fact that the Torah was given on them and through them.
May we all merit to acquire the Torah, and to achieve true humility, zeal in serving G-d, and true love and fear of G-d!
The Midrash lists Egypt after Midian though it is not the chronological order. I’m not sure of the reason for this.
Ibid, chapters 19 and 20
Psalms, 45:13. Although Moshe was the only person present at the burning bush, the revelation took place in an open area.
Bamidbar Rabbah, 1:7 and Midrash Tanchuma, Bamidbar, 7
Pesikta DeRav Kahana, 12
Bamidbar Rabbah, 1:7
Quoted in the Likutei Biurim on the Midrash Rabbah Hamevu’ar
Al HaTorah, beginning of Parshat Bamidbar
Parshat Bamidbar, 5658
Avodat Yisrael, beginning of Parshat Bamidbar
Ginzei Yisrael, Bamidbar, 5691
Ibid, Bamidbar, 5658