B’Midbar: Wildfire, Water, and Wilderness

Parashat B’Midbar, Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

Rabbi Paul L. Saal, Congregation Shuvah Yisrael, West Hartford, CT


B’Midbar, the fourth book of the Torah, is so named since it begins “Vay’daber Adonai el-Mosheh b’midbar Sinai (And the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai).” Midrash Rabbah B’Midbar 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 elements is free, so the learning of Torah is freely given.

Another interpretation of the Midrash is to understand fire, water, and 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, which 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 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 ablaze, a “dress rehearsal” for the soon-coming denouement on the very same mountain. It therefore behooves us to meet Hashem with similar excitement and passion. What should not be lost on us, though, is that when Hashem appears amidst the flames of passion neither bush nor mountain is 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 works best for us 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 are capable of controlling the fiery passions of our hearts, our minds also have the capacity of quenching the fire of our love for Hashem and others. Like unrestrained fire, a flood of hubristic intellect can cause unintended pain and also 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” (Deut. 8:3). As our ancestors had to transverse 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 often 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.

Stephanie Escalnate