Parashat Bamidbar- The Origins of Jewish Tenacity
The Midrash, commenting on the opening verse of the Book of Bamidbar, observes that the Torah has been compared to three natural phenomena: fire, water and a desert. Many Rabbis raised the question of what precisely the Midrash seeks to teach us through this observation. Why is it important for us to know that the Torah is compared to these three phenomena?
One explanation is that the Midrash seeks to draw our attention to the roots of one of the Jewish people’s most outstanding and consistent character trait: our innate stubbornness and tenacity, our refusal to surrender even under the harshest conditions. Throughout the millennia, Jews have shown their readiness to make enormous sacrifices – including the ultimate sacrifice, of their own lives – for their faith. Whether it was in Germany or Spain, in Russia or in Syria, Jews stubbornly clung to the Torah despite unbearable pressures. Even here in the United States, where we enjoy the freedom to practice our faith without fear of persecution, we are nevertheless subjected to an unrelenting onslaught of cultural pressures and lures, and yet so many Jews, Baruch Hashem, remain steadfastly committed to Torah study and observance, heroically resisting these pressures.
The Sages teach us that this extraordinary quality originates from three sources: fire, water, and the desert.
It began with Abraham Abinu, who refused to renounce his beliefs even at the threat of being thrown into a furnace. The fire of Abraham has been passed down to his descendants, to the countless generations of Jews who were prepared to give all they had, and their lives, for their faith.
But Abraham’s example was the source of individual devotion, people making the personal decision to make great sacrifices. The concept of a nationwide sacrifice, of the Jewish people collectively sacrificing themselves for their belief, began in the water – at the Sea of Reeds. Following God’s instructions, the nation headed straight into the raging waters of the sea. They were not told that the sea would be transformed to dry land. But they trusted that God would somehow rescue them, and with unfailing faith, they proceeded onward into the water. This established the precedent of nationwide sacrifice for the sake of God.
Still, these two incidents – the heroism of Abraham and of Beneh Yisrael at the sea – were momentary events. What remained to be seen is whether this stubborn, steadfast devotion could endure over an extended period of time. And so the third origin of Jewish tenacity is the wilderness, the forty-year period that Beneh Yisrael spent traveling through an uninhabitable desert. Their only food was the miraculous daily ration of manna, their only water source was the miraculous traveling well, and their only source of protection from the elements, animals and attackers was the miraculous clouds of glory. Placing their trust in God, Beneh Yisrael lived for forty years in a place where there is no possibility of survival through natural means. This set the example of our ability to withstand pressures and hardship even for many years, to refuse to relinquish our faith even through lengthy periods of difficulties and sacrifice.
As mentioned, we face enormous pressures and challenges here in the United States. Day in, and day out, week after week, month after month and year after year, we live with the temptation of material indulgence, the prevalent obsession with wealth, and the pervasive culture of permissiveness and immorality. We have good reason to take pride in our stubbornness, in the beautiful Torah homes, communities and institutions that we’ve built despite these persistent pressures, in the way we have remain stubbornly committed to our traditions rather than accept defeat. Even today, we live “Bamidbar,” in the desert, in a constant condition of challenge and struggle. May we continue to draw inspiration from our ancestors in our attempts to overcome the obstacles in our path, withstand pressures, and remain proudly and steadfastly committed to God and His Torah.