Yoni Mozeson
FInding God's hiding places

Why the Torah had to be given in a desert. Midrash Tanchuma Bamidbar: (Shavuot)

I would like to focus on an enigmatic statement of the Midrash concerning the transmission of the Torah:

לָמָּה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי. מִכָּאן שָׁנוּ רַבּוֹתֵינוּ, בִּשְׁלֹשָׁה דְּבָרִים נִתְּנָה הַתּוֹרָה, בָּאֵשׁ וּבַמַּיִם וּבַמִּדְבָּר

“Why does it say ’in the Sinai desert?’ (Numbers 1;1)  From here we derive that the Torah can only be transmitted under three conditions – through fire, and through water and through the desert.”

These three words, fire, water, and desert, are, of course,  subject to many interpretations.

The fallout from being the Chosen People

While conveying the idea of transmitting the Torah through fire, the Midrash quoted a verse describing the fire on Mt. Sinai that accompanied the giving of the Torah. My father, Rabbi Leon Mozeson,  (Z’L) considered the description of Mt. Sinai ti be particularly foreboding:

וְהַ֤ר סִינַי֙ עָשַׁ֣ן כֻּלּ֔וֹ מִ֠פְּנֵי אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָרַ֥ד עָלָ֛יו יְהוָ֖ה בָּאֵ֑שׁ וַיַּ֤עַל עֲשָׁנוֹ֙ כְּעֶ֣שֶׁן הַכִּבְשָׁ֔ן וַיֶּחֱרַ֥ד כָּל־הָהָ֖ר מְאֹֽד׃

“Now Mount Sinai was covered in smoke, because God had descended on it; the smoke rose like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently.” (Exodus 19:18)

My father felt that the sight of a fiery furnace foreshadowed the darkest times in Jewish history. God was sending the message that there is something a Jew has to understand right upfront.  There will be all kinds of wars and pogroms. There will even be furnaces like those of the crematoria.

This message for the Israelites about to accept the Torah is the same message that prospective converts to Judaism are told in order to discourage them. “Are you sure you want to subject yourself to antisemitism?”

Mt. Sinai, where the Jewish nation and hatred of Jews began

The Talmud traces antisemitism to the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Noting that the Hebrew word “Sinai” (as in Mt. Sinai) is related to the Hebrew word “Sinnah” – hatred:

דְּרַב חִסְדָּא וְרַבָּה בְּרֵיהּ דְּרַב הוּנָא דְּאָמְרִי תַּרְוַויְיהוּ: מַאי ״הַר סִינַי״? הַר שֶׁיָּרְדָה שִׂנְאָה לְאֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם עָלָיו

“As Rav Ḥisda and Rabba, son of Rav Huna, both said: ‘What is the reason it is called Mount Sinai? It is because it is a mountain upon which hatred “Sinnah” for the nations of the world descended “Because the great sinnah — the tremendous hatred aimed at the Jew – emanates from Sinai.”(Talmud Shabbat 89a)

As the moral conscience of the world, Jews remind people of a very unpopular idea — that you can’t do whatever you want. Even non-Jews have seven Noahide laws. Certainly, the fact that Judaism preceded Christianity and Islam has, at times,  brought out the wrath of those 2 religions upon us as well.

The second prerequisite is water – what you can’t live without

This one’s easy. The Torah is compared to water because Torah has the potential to leave each Jew with the feeling that the spiritual nourishment of Torah is indispensable. As the Midrash at the end of the piece says: הוֹי כָּל צָמֵא לְכוּ לַמַּיִם “Behold, all who are thirsty, come for water..” (Isaiah 55:1)

However, this successful level of transmission is often dependent on the quality of the teacher.  It works best when the teacher of Torah has absorbed the lesson of the third element the Midrash mentions — the desert,

The lynchpin of absorbing Torah — the desert

It’s true that the raging fire of antisemitism has taken its toll on the transmission of Torah. One may argue, however, that had the Jewish People kept the Torah they would never have been exiled and subject to so much antisemitism.

Why indeed did the Jews abandon the Torah and bring upon themselves exile and all its dire consequences?

(To ask the question another way, why did the Jewish People  start out as numerous as the Chinese and now there are about 1,5 billion more of them than us?)

I would like to propose a controversial idea.  The absorption of the beauty of Torah is dependent on how the Torah is transmitted.

A commentator on Midrash Tanchuma,  the Eitz Yoseph, defines for us how the notion of transmitting Torah is like a desert. It means that Torah has to be taught with humility. Teachers must approach each student from the perspective that they can learn from each and every one of their students. As much as teachers want to impart knowledge, they must approach every interaction with their students as an opportunity to gain knowledge.

If teachers can attain this level of humility, then the Torah they impart can be truly transformational. It would be abundantly clear that despite any sacrifice that acquiring Torah might entail, it’s a thirst that must be quenched.

About the Author
(Almost 100 Midrash Video summaries can be found on my youtube playlist: After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Related Topics
Related Posts