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Torah Attitude: Parashas Bamidbar: Restoring fire, wind (spirit), water and earth
The Torah was given to the Jewish people through three mediums: fire, water and the wilderness. Man is formed from the four elements: fire, wind (spirit), water and earth. After the sin of Adam and Eve, the negative aspect of the elements became part of them. The connection between the element of wind (spirit) and the ability to talk is hinted to at the creation of man. The negative aspects of the element of water represent man's lust for worldly pleasures. And the negative aspects of earth represent depression with one's situation. The reference to the sixth day alludes to the sixth day of the month of Sivan. In order to be worthy to receive the Torah, the Jewish people had to restore the other three elements as well. The Jewish people restored the aspect of laziness represented by the element of earth. With humbleness the Jewish people restored the element of fire. The Jewish people were united in their readiness to accept G'd's Torah and rectified their personal cravings for pleasure represented by the element of water. In order to merit getting the Torah, with which they could restore the element of wind (spirit), the Jewish people first had to restore the other three elements of fire, water and earth represented by the wilderness. Every Jew has the ability to connect with the revelation at Mount Sinai and get closer to his personal completeness.
Fire, water and wilderness
In the beginning of this week's Parasha it says (Bamidbar 1:1): "And G'd spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting [Tabernacle]." The Midrash Rabbah (1:7) asks, why does the Torah need to let us know that G'd spoke to Moses in the wilderness? The Midrash answers that the Torah was given to the Jewish people through three mediums: fire, water and the wilderness. The Midrash brings different quotations as proof that the Torah was given through these three elements, and the above verse is the proof regarding the wilderness. The obvious question arises, what is the significance of this information? However, if we analyze the words of the Midrash we may find a deeper message that the Midrash wants to teach us.
The great Kabbalist, Rabbi Chaim Vital (Gates of Holiness 1:1) writes that after Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they themselves became a mixture of good and evil. He continues to explain that man is formed from the four elements: fire, wind (spirit), water and earth. Each of these represents different aspects of the physical and spiritual makeup of man.
Negative aspects of fire and wind
Before the sin, when Adam and Eve were created, they had within them only the good of each of the elements. But after their sin, the evil of the elements also became part of them. This came to affect mankind, both physically and spiritually. In a physical sense, it brought about that people can become sick and even may die from their sickness. In a spiritual sense, people would from then on have negative character traits, with each of the elements representing different negative side of people psyche. The negative aspects of fire represent arrogance and haughtiness, as well as anger. The negative aspects of wind (spirit) represent everything connected with negative talk, such as flattery, lies, and gossiping.
Wind and talk
The connection between the element of wind (spirit) and the ability to talk is already hinted to at the creation of man where it says (Bereishis 2:7): "And G'd formed the man from the earth of the ground … and the man became a living being." The Targum Onkelus translates the words "a living being" as "a speaking spirit".
Negative aspects of water and earth
Rabbi Vital continues to explain that the negative aspects of the element of water represent man's lust for worldly pleasures. And the negative aspects of earth represent depression with one's situation which in turn causes the person to become lazy and slack in observing the commandments of the Torah.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) teaches that G'd created man with the ability to talk in order to study Torah. Rashi (Bereishis 1:31) quotes the Midrash that points out that only the sixth day of creation is referred to as the sixth day with a definite article, indicating the specialness of that day. First of all, Adam and Eve, the pinnacle of creation, were created on that day, thus bringing all of creation to its purpose assisting man in serving G'd. But, says the Midrash, there is a deeper message. The reference to the sixth day alludes to the sixth day of the month of Sivan. This is the day when G'd revealed Himself to the Jewish people and gave them His Torah. At this occasion, man was given the tool of Torah to reach his full potential as originally intended on the sixth day of Creation. With this, the element of wind (spirit) was restored to its original state prior to the sin of Adam and Eve.
Restore three other elements
But in order to be worthy to receive the Torah, the Jewish people had to restore the other three elements as well. In Parashas Yithro, prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai, it says (Shemos 19:1-2): "In the third month from the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt, on this day they came to the wilderness of Sinai. And they travelled from Refidim, and they came to the wilderness of Sinai. And they camped in the wilderness. And Israel camped there opposite the mountain." The Or HaChaim asks what is the point to mention that they travelled from Refidim after it says that they had arrived at Sinai. He further questions why it says that they camped in the wilderness? Is it not obvious that if this is the place where they arrived, then this is where they camped?
The Or HaChaim answers that these verses carry a deeper message. The Torah here refers to three requirements the Jewish people needed as preparation to be worthy to receive the Torah. The reason why the Torah relates that the Jewish people travelled from Refidim is not to let us know the geographical place from where they journeyed. At the end of Parshas Beshalach, it says that the Jewish people were attacked by Amalek at Refidim. The Midrash Tanchuma (25) explains that this happened because they were lazy in their study of the Torah laws that they had been taught earlier. The actual name "Refidim", says the Midrash, can also be read as "Rafu yadam" which translates as "their hands were lax". The Torah teaches us that they travelled away from what the place of Refidim represented and distanced themselves from their laxness in Torah study. Later the Torah relates how they showed an eagerness to accept the complete Torah, as they said the famous words (Shemos 24:7): "We will do and we will listen." With this, the Jewish people restored the aspect of laziness represented by the element of earth. And at the same time, they no doubt felt very good about themselves and did not suffer from any form of depression.
Similarly, when the Torah writes that they camped in the wilderness it does not come just to teach us the place where they camped, but rather their attitude at the time of camping. The aforementioned Midrash Rabbah continues and explains that G'd spoke to Moses in the wilderness to teach us that in order to be worthy to acquire the wisdom of Torah, one must be ready to be humble like the sand of the wilderness. This humbleness, says the Orach Chaim, was the second preparation for the receiving of the Torah. And with this they restored the element of fire. No one felt better than his fellow Jews, and there was no arrogance or haughtiness between them.
The third preparation is hinted at in the words "and Israel camped" in the singular rather than the regular plural expression "and the children of Israel camped." Rashi quotes from the Mechilta that this teaches us that the Jewish people were like one person with one heart. Everyone was united in their readiness to accept G'd's Torah. With this they rectified their personal cravings for pleasure represented by the element of water. For a person who is interested in the lusts of this world finds it difficult to join and unite with others, and will always have his own interests in mind. This is what King Solomon writes (Mishlei 18:1): "The one who seeks lust sets himself apart."
Original level of Adam and Eve
With this new insight we may be able to understand the deeper meaning of the Midrash Rabbah that we quoted above. The Midrash said that G'd gave the Jewish people the Torah through fire and water in the wilderness. With this the Midrash hints to the fact that in order to merit getting the Torah, with which they could restore the element of wind (spirit), they first had to restore the other three elements of fire, water and earth (represented by the wilderness). In this way, they returned to the purity of Adam and Even before their sin. We can further understand what the Talmud (Shabbos 146a) says that at the revelation at Mount Sinai the Jewish people reached the original level of Adam and Eve before their sin. Only later at the sin of the golden calf did they loose this high spiritual level.
Every year on Shavuous, we refer to this festival in our prayers as the Time of the Giving of the Torah. This teaches us that every Jew has the ability to connect with the revelation at Mount Sinai and get closer to his personal completeness. In this way, we follow in the footsteps of our ancestors, as they stood opposite Mount Sinai. However, during the days leading up to Shavuous we must work on our personal character traits to try and restore them, so that we too will be worthy to receive our portion of G'd's Torah.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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