We read in Parashat Beshalach that after Benei Yisrael crossed the Sea of Reeds, they “traveled for three days in the wilderness and did not find water” (15:22). The Gemara in Masekhet Bava Kama (82a) famously interprets the term “water” in this verse allegorically, as a reference to Torah. The nation went three days without any engagement in learning, and this led them to a spiritual crisis of sorts. It was thus instituted at that time that the Torah should be read every Shabbat, Monday and Thursday, so that we would not go three days without exposure to Torah reading.
Clearly, the simple meaning of these verses is that Benei Yisrael found themselves without drinking water. The Torah proceeds to tell that the people eventually found water which was foul-tasting, and God had to make a miracle to transform the water. Quite obviously, the story here is about a lack of drinking water. And yet, Chazal understood that there was something more going on – namely, that the people experienced spiritual “thirst,” having been without exposure the Torah for three days. How might we explain the connection between the plain meaning of the text and Chazal’s Midrashic reading?
The Gemara perhaps instructs that we must not neglect our spiritual needs even as we struggle to obtain our material needs. Benei Yisrael at this time faced a grave crisis, journeying through a desert without water, and the Gemara draws our attention to the fact that alongside this problem, they also faced a different problem – a lack of “spiritual sustenance” in the form of Torah. They are not criticized for complaining to Moshe about their lack of water, because this was certainly a pressing and urgent matter that demanded a solution. However, even as they faced this crisis, they did not neglect the problem of their thirst for Torah. This matter, too, was given high priority, despite their preoccupation with their lack of water.
Sometimes, we excuse ourselves from rigorous spiritual engagement because of the many other urgent problems that we face. Life always poses one kind of challenge or another, and it becomes difficult to focus on our religious ideals when we are bogged down with our day-to-day struggles. Chazal warn us about this phenomenon in the famous Mishna in Pirkei Avot (2:4), “Do not say, ‘When I have time I will learn,’ for you might never have time.” We will always be “busy,” we will always have problems that demand our time and attention. But Chazal urge us to try, as best as we can, to quench our thirst for Torah even as we struggle to quench our physical and material thirst, as we work to solve the day-to-day problems that we encounter.