The Midrash enumerates three earthy components that were part of the Sinai experience.
Three elements are associated with the giving of the Torah…fire, water, and desert. (Midrash Rabbah, 1:7)
Lightning and flashes of fire were in the air when Moshe received the Torah (Exodus 19), the clouds dripped water while the Jews were at Mount Sinai (Judges 5), and this week’s Parsha begins by informing us that the (Sinai) desert was the place where the Torah was given. (Numbers 1:1). What message does this Midrash seek to convey?
Rav Meir Shapiro (1887-1933) suggests that it is an admonition to be loyal to the Torah and its values regardless of the setting. Fire, like heat, always rises to a higher plane. Regardless of the direction in which a match is turned, the flame always rises. Water, on the other hand, naturally flows downward to the lowest point possible. These diametrically opposed elements, fire and water, represent the up-down phases of the human experience. What is the significance of the desert? The Jewish nation acquiesced to the Almighty’s command to follow Him into the harsh desert. Therefore, the desert represents their love for and faith in Him that He would protect them there.
There are times in life when success comes easily. During those times, we are on the rise, similar to a flame, which continually rises upward. There are also dark periods when life seems to be leading us in a downward spiral; like water, which flows downward. The Midrash is informing us that during these two diametrically opposed phases – success and failure – we must maintain our commitment to the mitzvot and values of the Torah.
All blessings have challenges and every difficulty presents opportunities. When G-d gives us material blessings, we have the opportunity to enjoy their benefits as well as the peace of mind accompanying them. However, temptation and challenge are unpleasant byproducts of success. For example, will we maintain our compassion as our quality of life improves? Will our success affect our dealings with those less fortunate than us? Will it impact our moral life and value system?
Although most of us try to avoid difficulties in life, it is usually those difficulties that are the catalyst that enable us to change. If we had to place a bet on who would be more compassionate, would it be the most popular girl in high school, the one everyone vies with to be her friend, or a girl with a special needs brother? Clearly the popular girl has an easier life but having a special needs brother forces one to learn to adjust to non-ideal situations, to feel what it’s like to be embarrassed when in her brother’s presence, and so many other challenges. She might even need therapy to help her reframe her life and not to care about what others think and become unselfish. This will most likely be a painful process but a woman rich in wisdom and compassion will emerge.
Einstein once quipped, “adversity introduces a man to himself.” How a person reacts to challenges are an indication of who that person is. Not getting the promotion or not getting into one’s college of choice can cause one to be disappointed and move on with life and the options it presents or it can cause a person to feel like a failure who becomes depressed and withdrawn. The inevitable bumps in our lives are challenging in so many ways but there are great opportunities for growth during these seemingly dark periods. Challenges help us find inner strength, clarify our priorities, and, have the ability to force us to focus on what matters most.
Every student of Jewish history know that the Middle Ages were a particularly difficult time for Jews. Crusades, being accused of poisoning public wells, and blood libels were just some of the challenges the Jews of that time had to deal with. However, that same period also produced some of the greatest scholarship in our history. Although many Jews have never heard of Rashi, Rambam, or Ramban, their works as well many other giants who lived in the Middle Ages, are still studied today by thousands of Jews daily! Rashi lived and witnessed the first crusade; Maimonides (Rambam), was slandered and had his works burned; in 1263 Nachmonidies (Ramban) was so successful in his debate with a Dominican Friar in Barcelona that the Dominicans had him exiled-he eventually made his way to Israel. If one reads the works of that era without historical context, (s)he would think that they must have lived in a tranquil time period but nothing could be further from the truth. What would have caused other individuals or cultures to be crushed was a catalyst for some of the most erudite scholarship in our history.
The Midrash about fire, water, and desert reminds us of something that we forget so often throughout our lives; whatever challenges we face, the best time to become your best self and fulfill your potential is right now-and the same is true for Judaism. One might say, I didn’t learn too much as a child and it’s really hard to expose myself to a new language, ideas, and lifestyle that are so foreign to the life I am leading and l have lead for so long. Granted, it will be a challenge but one should not let it be an excuse for giving up something so precious. At the very end of a letter John Adams wrote to a friend, he speaks out against anti-Jewish overtures.
How is it possible this old fellow should represent the Hebrews in such a contemptible light? They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their Empire were but a Bauble in comparison of the Jews. They have given Religion to three quarters of the Globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more, and more happily than any other Nation ancient or modern. (from John Adams to François Adriaan Van der Kemp, 31 December 1808 https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-5285)
We have influenced the affairs of mankind more, and more happily than any other Nation ancient or modern. What’s so remarkable is that we accomplished this even though we were a persecuted minority. Being a Jew means carrying the torch of the Jewish message no matter what your life’s circumstance is. The only way to carry the message is to know what the message is. Instead of merely using the nebulous term “Jewish values,” let’s attach ourselves to thousands of years of Jewry; we are decedents of people who put forth great effort to actually learn what those values are as well as the myriad of life lessons contained in Jewish texts.
There are opportunities for greatness in Jewish learning and spirituality in all times and places, and in every type of environment. We are a few days away from Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah. What better time could there be than to grab one of them?