FIRE, WATER AND THE DESERT
May 15, 2018
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1118, BaMidbar, Parsha Thought

THE DESERT AND TORAH

The fourth book of the Torah is called BaMidbar-In the Desert. The first parsha of this book, this week’s parsha, is also referred to as BaMidbar. This year, as in most years, it is read on the Shabbos prior to Shavuos, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Much has been written concerning the connection between BaMidbar and Shavuos.

The Rebbe (Seifer HaSichos 5751) cites the Midrash that highlights the fact that the Torah was given in a desert (BaMidbar) because of Torah’s association with the concept of a desert. Among the many connections between Torah and a desert that the Rebbe cites, the Midrash describes a desert as a place that belongs to no one; therefore, everyone has the same right to claim it. (That was before the discovery of oil in the desert and will revert to that way after the world will no longer use fossil fuels; then we will be energized by the light of the sun, as the Rebbe advocated.)

Similarly, the Midrash states, the Torah is free for all to claim as their own.

The Rebbe also cites an explanation from the Talmud (Eruvin 54a) that the desert is also a symbol of humility. Only one who is truly humble can be receptive to the teachings and ideals of Torah. A person who has an inflated ego possesses an organic resistance to inculcating the dictates and values of the Torah.

TORAH IS BOTH TRANSCENDENT AND ACCESSIBLE!

The Rebbe connects these two approaches that: (a) Torah belongs to no one, and therefore everyone can access it; and (b) Torah can only be accessed by one who is humble.

The fact that the Torah was given in a place that belongs to no one, instead of being given in a place that belongs to everyone, underscores the fact that Torah is inherently above and beyond the parameters of our world and therefore cannot, on its own, be claimed as the sole property of any one person. Torah, in its essential state, cannot naturally be accessed by those who are bound by worldly conventions; the Infinite Divine wisdom of Torah and the finite, natural world are mutually exclusive.

Therefore, the only way that we can access the Torah in its pristine, essential form is to transcend ourselves through an unassuming and self-abnegating attitude.

Anyone can take a Torah book, read it and even gain some measure of understanding of it. However, to be able to capture its deeper, essential meaning we cannot allow our egos to get in the way.

If this is true of Torah in the past, it is especially true with regard to the new vistas of Torah that Moshiach will reveal in the future.

If Torah is transcendent, above and beyond the parameters of the world, then the innermost secrets of Torah, which the prophet Isaiah refers to as “the new [dimension] of Torah,” are certainly inherently transcendent revelations from G-d.

If, to be receptive to the Torah at Sinai, it required the humble desert-level receptivity, then it is certainly true today as we prepare for Moshiach and await revelation of the new dimensions of Torah.

THREE SEPARATE METAPHORS

There is another relevant Midrash which adds two other metaphors for Torah: fire and water.

“The Torah was given through three things: with fire, with water and in the desert… Why was it given with these three things? Just as these are given gratis to the entire world, so too the Torah was given gratis.”

If the desert metaphor points to the fact that Torah belongs to every Jew, what do the metaphors of fire and water add? Why the need for three similar allegories?

Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the famed pre-WWII founder of the legendary Chachmei Lublin Yeshivah and one of the leaders of Polish Jewry, explained that the metaphors of fire, water and desert allude to the three incidents/levels of self-sacrifice exhibited by our progenitors.

Abraham was thrown into a fiery furnace for defiance of King Nimrod’s command to bow to idols.

But Abraham was just one individual.

Nachshon and the entire Jewish nation took the plunge of faith into the raging waters of the Red Sea because G-d told them to continue journeying. Here it was not just an individual but the entire Jewish nation that acted.

However, that expression of self-sacrifice was a one-time gesture. When the entire Jewish people agreed to go through a desert for years, with all of its attendant dangers and threats, it was an indication that we, as a nation, were capable of enduring the greatest hardships in our pursuit of reaching Sinai, the Land of Israel and ultimately the Messianic Age.

It should be noted that fire, water and desert are associated here with love. Abraham was synonymous with love. The name Nachshon has the numerical value of 414, which is the same as the word v’ohavta-and you shall love. The word “BaMidbar-in the desert” has the numerical value of 248, which is the same numerical value of the word Abraham and also parallels the 248 positive commandments which are motivated by love of G-d.

If we analyze these three expressions of loving self-sacrifice we can discern yet another pattern.

Abraham was prepared to die rather than betray his belief in one G-d. His self-sacrifice was directed toward resisting evil. His revulsion of idols was rooted in fear of separation from G-d.

Conversely, Nachshon and his fellow Jews who jumped into the Red Sea were prepared to die to get closer to Mount Sinai, where they would forge an eternal bond with G-d. In a way, this form of self-sacrifice is more profound than that of Abraham because it involved preparedness to engage in a positive relationship. This form of sacrifice is motivated by love to get closer to G-d.

In other words, Abraham’s self-sacrifice was in the arena of “keeping away from evil” whereas Nachshon’s act of self-sacrifice was for “doing good.”

Based on this analysis, what was added by the Jewish people’s willingness to travel through the desert? What more can be asked of a Jew who is willing to die to resist evil and do good?

SACRIFICE FOR TORAH STUDY

The answer is that the desert represents Torah study.

The Jewish people have shown a persistent, uncanny devotion to Torah study. In times of great danger, the Jewish people, the rabbis and laymen, scholars and simple folk, did not cease studying Torah. Even when Jewish law exempted a person from Torah study, the poorest and most infirm exerted themselves to study Torah.

Thus the Talmud states, “Hillel obligates the poor.” No one is poorer than Hillel and yet he risked his life to study Torah.

RATZO, SHOV AND THEIR FUSION

On a deeper level we can understand the three metaphors of fire, water and desert as they pertain to Torah, based on a Chassidic discourse of the Rebbe:

Fire, the Rebbe explains, is a metaphor for the passion of the soul when it seeks to attach itself to the Divine. This feeling of love for G-d as expressed during prayer is known as ratzo-advance and is like a fire which flickers upward. It represents the desire of the soul to remove itself from the mundane world and rise, to become one with its Divine source.

Water, which descends, represents the opposite spiritual movement, referred to as shov-retreat. This gesture takes the person as his soul soars heavenward during prayer and “forces” it to descend back down into the physical world. The goal is to engage the physical world and instill within it G-dly meaning and purpose through the observance of the Mitzvos, most of which involve physical actions and material objects.

THE ROLE OF TORAH

We must now consider the role of the midbar-desert, which is related specifically to Torah, and how it relates to the other two metaphors, fire and water.

To explain this, let us refer to another talk of the Rebbe (Seifer HaSichos 5751), in which he discusses the power of Torah to unify and synthesize these two movements of ratzo and shov.

Torah is said to correspond to the attribute of tiferes-beauty-harmony-synthesis, which has the power to unify the two attributes of chesed-love-ratzo and g’vura-strength-restraint-shov. So while prayer is fire and Mitzvos are water, Torah is simultaneously compared to fire and water.

And here is where the metaphor of the desert comes into the discussion. In order to access and internalize this unifying force of Torah, we must be like the desert in which the Torah was given. This is an allusion to the trait of bittul-self-abnegation. Otherwise, the Torah that we study does not possess its inner Divine transcendent power to synthesize two distinct and even opposite traits. If we try to “take” Torah without humility, we are then taking the Torah in a compromised form, reflective of our limited and colored personality. How could that limited form of Torah relate to a contradictory trait? Only Torah in its pristine and infinite state can bring together opposite forces and mold them into a unified power.

TORAH AS THE POWER TO BRING REDEMPTION

This, the Rebbe states, is the power of Torah to bring about the Redemption. Because the ultimate goal of Redemption is to harmonize the sublime but chaotic world of Tohu, which generates the feelings of ratzo, the desire to escape the physical world, with the attenuated world of Tikkun, the world of shov and moderation. Ratzo without shov takes us away from our goal to make this world a dwelling place for G-d. However, shov without ratzo leaves us with moderated and limited G-dly energy. Only when we fuse the two through Torah study are we capable of reaping the benefits of both ratzo and shov—bringing G-d’s unfiltered essence into the physical world.

 

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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