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The Torah's Three Elements

Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Hard work, happiness and humility are the keys to success in Torah learning.

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

This week's parsha is always read before Shavuot, the festival of receiving the Torah. What is the connection is between the two? How does Parshat Bamidbar prepare us for the festival of Shavuot?

The first verse in this week's portion tells us that God spoke to Moses in the Sinai desert (Numbers 1:1). The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 1:7) questions why it is necessary for the Torah to specify the location in which God spoke to Moses. According to the Midrash, our Sages derive from this detail that three elements were present when the Torah was given: fire, water and desert.

We learn about fire from the verse, "All of Mount Sinai was smoking because God descended upon it in fire" (Exodus 19:18). Water is specified in the verse, "The heavens dripped with water" (Judges 5:4), which describes the giving of the Torah. Finally, we learn about the desert from the phrase "in the Sinai desert" in this week's portion. What message is the Torah trying to convey by listing the weather conditions at the time we received the Torah?!

There are three primary keys to success in Torah learning:


  1. Hard work and intense involvement in study.



  2. Happiness and joy while studying.



  3. Humility coming from the knowledge that, ultimately, our achievements in learning are not a result of our own efforts, but due to the kindness of God who gives us Torah.


We see a hint to these three attributes in the Talmudic opinions regarding the blessings one must recite before studying Torah (Brachot 11b). The Talmud lists three opinions:


  1. Rav Yehuda, in the name of Shmuel, claims that one must recite the blessing, "...who has commanded us to be involved in the study of Torah."



  2. Rebbe Yochanan claims that we should say instead, "May You make the words of Torah be sweet in our mouths."



  3. Rav Ham'nuna claims that we should say, "Blessed are You, the One Who gives Torah."


The Talmud concludes that we should follow all of these opinions, and recite all three blessings before beginning Torah study.

Making a blessing over a mitzvah prepares us to fulfill the mitzvah. Thus, making a blessing before we begin to study Torah prepares us for the mitzvah of learning Torah. Once we understand this, we can see that these three blessings mentioned in the Talmud correlate exactly to the three keys for successful Torah learning that we listed initially:


  • The blessing, "to be involved in the study of Torah" corresponds to the hard work that is necessary to invest in studying.



  • The blessing, "make the words of Torah sweet in our mouths" corresponds to the happiness and joy we must feel when engaged in study.



  • The blessing, "the One Who gives Torah" corresponds to the humility that results when we realize that our achievements are not due to our own effort, but are actually a result of Divine benevolence.



* * *



Based on the Shem MiShmuel, we can now understand the deeper message of the Midrash in listing the three elements that were present at the giving of the Torah:


  1. Fire symbolizes hard work. We see this explicitly in the Yiddish word "farbrent" (literally, "on fire"), which is used to describe intense effort in Torah learning. As we mentioned above, the idea of hard work corresponds to the blessing, "to be involved in the study of Torah."



  2. Water symbolizes happiness. In the Land of Israel, rain is considered a blessing and a benefit. We should all be happy when it rains, since almost every aspect of our lives depends on water. This idea corresponds to the blessing, "make the words of Torah sweet in our mouths."



  3. The desert represents humility. It is low and flat, and people walk all over it. This corresponds to the blessing, "the One Who gives Torah" - since, as we mentioned, it takes humility to recognize that our own efforts are not the ultimate cause of our success.


Now we can finally understand why Parshat Bamidbar is read right before Shavuot. On Shavuot, we do not simply commemorate the original acceptance of Torah, but we accept the Torah upon ourselves anew. In order to prepare ourselves to truly receive Torah on this day, Parshat Bamidbar gives us the keys that will enable our Torah learning to succeed.

May we all be triply blessed: to work hard in learning the Torah that was given at Mount Sinai in fire, with sweet happiness that feels as good as cool water, so that this Shavuot will be a humble, down-to-earth acceptance of God's extraordinary gift.

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