בג' דברים ניתנה התורה, באש, ובמים, ובמדבר. באש מנין שנאמר והר סיני עשן כולו וגו', ובמים מנין שנאמר גם שמים נטפו גם עבים נטפו מים, ובמדבר מנין וידבר ה' אל משה במדבר סיני.
“The Torah was given to the accompaniment of three things, fire, water and wilderness. ‘Fire’; is derived from the verse “Mount Sinai was smoking in its entirety because Hashem descended upon it in fire” (Shemot 19:18). ‘Water,’ is derived from the verse, ‘Even the heavens trickled; even the clouds dripped water’ (Judges 5:4). ‘Wilderness’ is derived from the verse ‘Hashem spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai.’ (Bamidbar 1:1) (Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 1:7)

Eish — Fire

QUESTION: What message did Hashem impart by giving the Torah accompanied with fire?

ANSWER: There are many things that can be learned from fire, here are some of them.

1) Fire = Warmth

Giving the Torah accompanied by fire teaches us that the Torah should be studied and practiced with warmth and vigor.

(שם משמואל)

2) Fires Rises Upward

Another lesson to be derived from the giving of the Torah with fire is the following: The nature of fire is to rise upwards. Similarly, a person must strive to go from strength to strength and constantly rise higher in his adherence to Torah.

(ר' מרדכי שלמה זצ"ל מבויאן)

3) Mesirat Nefesh

Alternatively, fire represents mesirut nefesh — self sacrifice. Our father Avraham was tested with ten tests. The first was in Ur Kasdim. King Nimrod threw him into the fiery furnace for his denial of idols and conviction of the Omnipresent Hashem and His teachings.

A prerequisite for success in Torah learning and observance is mesirus nefesh — absolute devotion. One must be ready to “go into the fire” for the sake of Hashem and His Torah.

(ר' מאיר ז"ל שפירא מלובלין)

Meaning of Mesirat Nefesh

Regarding the pasuk “zot haTorah adam ki yamut b’ohel — “This is the Torah (teaching) regarding a man if he dies in the tent” (Bamidbar 19:14), the Gemara (Berachot 63b) says, “Torah has a lasting effect only with one who kills himself for it.”

Suicide is forbidden! How can a dead man study Torah?

Torah does not literally require suicide from the Jew, (except in regard to three transgressions, idolatry, adultery, and homicide). Mesirut Nefesh means giving up one’s pattern or the established norms and ways of society. An example of this is the following:

Often when people sit down to study, they permit various factors to interrupt them, such as a telephone call or the arrival of visitors. There is no way, however, of disturbing a dead person with a telephone call or the like. The Gemara is teaching that a person who wants to succeed in his learning must consider himself “dead”: He cannot permit anything whatsoever to interrupt him.

(ר' אפרים זלמן ז"ל מרגלית)

Alternatively, when the Gemara refers to one who “kills” himself, this could mean one who refrains from physical indulgences.

(מהרש"א גיטין נז ע"ב)

Mayim— Water

QUESTION: What message is imparted by the giving of Torah accompanied with water?


1) Proper Priorities

Water fulfills a physical need and it enables all delights to grow and flourish. However, unlike other physical needs, people have little desire to overindulge in it and are usually satisfied to simply quench their thirst. This teaches us to be satisfied with our material circumstances and indulge entirely in the study of Torah.

(ילקוט אליעזר)

2) Humility

The nature of water is that it leaves a higher level and goes to a lower level. So too, words of Torah are retained only by one who is humble.

(מסכת תענית ז' ע"א)

3) Cherish Every Drop

In Pirkei Avot (1:4) Rabbi Yosei ben Yo’ezer of Tzreidah says, “One should drink the words of the Sages thirstily.”

What is the analogy between studying Torah and drinking water thirstily?

To someone who is thirsty, every drop of water is precious. Likewise Hashem’s message in giving Torah accompanied by water was that every drop of Torah study should be precious and cherished.

4) Make Every Effort to Acquire it

When one is thirsty, he will turn over every stone to find some water and even walk miles to reach a well. Similarly, one should make every effort to study Torah and not hesitate even to travel a long distance in order to participate in a Torah study group.

5) Priceless Commodity

Since water is available in such abundant measure, the cost of a glass of water is very little. Nevertheless, when one is “dying of thirst” and is given a glass of water, the value of that glass of water is priceless, and he does not just owe his benefactor the price of the water, but the value of his life since without the water his life might have come to an end, G‑d forbid.

The message is the following: Appreciate the words of Torah and the rabbis who share it with you in the same way as the very thirsty man values the glass of water. He is forever indebted to the one who gave him water to quench his thirst. In both cases the recipient receives an extension of life, one physical and the other spiritual.

6) No Embarrasment

A thirsty person is not embarrased to ask for a drink of water. Similarly, Hillel says “the bashful person cannot learn” (Avot 2:5).

The Combination of Water and Fire with Torah

Fire and water are opposites. Fire represents destruction and impoverishment, while water represents affluence and enrichment: “Water makes all sorts of enjoyment and delights grow” (Tanya, ch. 1, based on R. Chaim Vital, Sha’arei Kedushah I:2).

Hashem gave the Torah with fire and water to teach the Jewish people that if a person is, G‑d forbid, experiencing deprivation he must still study and observe Torah. On the other hand, the one who is blessed with affluence and has all the delights, must also study Torah and live by its teachings.

(שמעתי מהרב משה אהרן צבי שי' ווייס, שערמאן אוקס, קאליפארניא)

Midbar— Wilderness

QUESTION: What message is imparted by giving the Torah in a wilderness?


1) Torah is Ownerless

The wilderness is essentially ownerless, no one can claim it. By this choice of location, Hashem was hinting to us that the Torah belongs equally to everyone.

2) Rely on Hashem

QUESTION: Why, however, was the Torah given not only in an ownerless place, but in a desolate place, “a dry and weary land without water” (Psalms, 63:2) — a place without clothing, food and water?

ANSWER: The Jewish people left Egypt and went to a wilderness, an uncultivated land, for the purpose of receiving the Torah. They did not know how they would manage. In the wilderness they obtained the manna in the merit of Moshe, the pillar of the clouds (which miraculously protected them, cleaned and altered their clothing to size) in the merit of Aharon, and water in the merit of Miriam (Ta’anit 9a).

This serves as a moral lesson for us: one must study Torah and rely entirely on Hashem. He will then provide all that is needed materially and spiritually.

(לקוטי שיחות ח"ב)

3) Power to Convert

Grass grew around Mount Sinai when Hashem gave the Torah. Hashem performed this miracle to indicate that a person whose spiritual landscape is a “wilderness” can be elevated and refined through Torah until he is comparable to a flourishing oasis.

(ר' נפתלי זצ"ל מראפשיץ)

4) No Excuse

The giving of Torah in a wilderness teaches us that Torah observance is not limited to any specific location. Even if one resides in a neighborhood which is a spiritual wilderness — i.e. distant from large orthodox communities — he is not exempt from studying and observing Torah.

(שמעתי מהרב משה אהרן צבי שי' ווייס)

5) Humbleness

A wilderness is an abandoned property where everyone is free to go. Giving the Torah in a wilderness teaches an important lesson. To succeed in Torah study a person must be very humble and consider himself insignificant. He should permit all Jews to associate with him and not arrogantly reject certain individuals.

In the Gemara (Eiruvin 54a) Rava homiletically explains the pasuk “Umimidbar mattanah umimattanah nachali’el uminchali’el bamot” (21:18, 19) as follows: “Umimidbar” — if a person conducts himself as a “wilderness” which everybody treads upon (i.e., he is humble), then “matanah” — the Torah — will be granted to him as a gift, and once it is given to him as a gift, “nachali’el” — it becomes his inheritance from Hashem — and once Hashem makes it his inheritance, “bamot” — he will rise to heights.

(מד"ר במדבר א:ז, ועי' פרדס יוסף החדש)

ויסעו מרפידים ויבאו מדבר סיני
They journeyed from Rephidim and arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai. (Shemot 19:2)

QUESTION: Why did Hashem give the Torah while the Jews were still in the wilderness rather than wait until after they arrived in their own land, Eretz Yisrael?

ANSWER: The Gemara (Tamid 32a) relates that Alexander the Great put ten questions to the elders of the South. One of the questions was, “Were the heavens created first or the earth?” They replied, “Heaven was created first, as the Torah states, ‘In the beginning of G‑d’s creating the heavens and the earth’ ” (Bereishit 1:1).

Why did Alexander the Great want to know the order of creation?

As a great philosopher and student of Aristotle, Alexander was understandably interested in the Jewish perspective of creation. However, the intent of his question here was much more profound. Alexander was the most powerful king of his times, and his goal of conquering the entire world was almost realized. Heaven represents spirituality, and earth represents material pursuits. Alexander was uncertain whether to pursue the physical acquisition of the world or to spiritually uplift the part of the world already under his control.

Unable to decide, he turned to our Sages for counsel. They responded that when G‑d created the world, He created the heavens first, indicating that spiritual values are pre-eminent.

Therefore, Hashem gave the Torah in the wilderness prior to the arrival of the Jews in their own land to emphasize the superiority of Torah (spirituality) over land (physicality). The nations of the world who refused to accept the Torah became extinct with the loss of their lands. The Jews, however, exist forever, even without a land, as long as they keep the Torah.

(מצאתי בכתבי זקני הרב צבי הכהן ז"ל קאפלאן)