Many civilizations and religions over the course of history have taught that the world, including man, is composed of four fundamental elements (sometimes called foundations or forces): fire, earth, air and water. Although perhaps not well known to everyone, these four foundations are also important in Jewish tradition (אש, עפר, רוח and מים).
In recent years, some have belittled the importance of this ancient tradition, citing the fact that we now know that the universe is made up of 98 naturally occurring elements (or perhaps 118 elements if we include those that have been artificially produced in nuclear reactors or laboratories). Apologists have attempted to resolve the issue by saying that the ancients were not talking about elements as we define them today, but rather about forces. Interestingly, scientists have shown that there are, in fact, four fundamental forces that govern the mechanics of the universe: gravity, the strong nuclear force, the weak force and electromagnetism. Another attempt at reconciliation is to equate the four fundamental elements with the four states of matter: solid (earth), liquid (water), gas (air) and plasma (fire). We could even apply this idea to the composition of man (or any living organism). The physicality of man at least, is made up of four components: solid matter (earth), liquids (water), air (gases breathed in and out as oxygen and carbon dioxide) and the fire of metabolism which converts food to energy, fuels the body and produces heat. So man is literally composed of these four elements. However, for the purpose of this article, we want to focus on the spirituality of man and see how these four elements relate to the spirit (or psychology) of man.
Naturally speaking, man has four fundamental ways of approaching a situation or solving a challenge. He may use the fire method, the earth method, the air method or the water method. Let’s look at two examples to illustrate.
Since the early months of 2020, the world has been going through a very difficult period governed by two factors, the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the various responses of governments to that spread. This is not the forum to discuss the origins of the virus, the effectiveness of masks or experimental therapeutics, or of government policies relating to this topic. Instead we will explore the four fundamental ways that people have generally responded to these challenges.
Let us look at earth. Earth is passive. It doesn’t protest. It doesn’t argue. It doesn’t fight. It just lies there. The earth people say the following: “Don’t put up a fight. Don’t protest. There’s no use. It’s hopeless. We can’t change anything. Just do as they say and maybe someday soon, this will all be over and we’ll go back to normal. After all, they must know what they’re talking about. And surely, they have our best interests in mind, right?”
What about air or wind? The word for air or wind (רוח) is related to the word to flee or to run away (לברוח). This teaches us that the main driving force of the air people is to run away, to escape, to go somewhere else. They say: “Surely there must be someplace where we can go where this situation doesn’t exist. Maybe we can move to the country or to a small town or maybe even to Sweden! Life here is crazy and unbearable. Let’s leave before it’s too late.”
And then there are the fire people. These say: “Let’s fight this. We can organize protests. We must march and demonstrate. If need be we’re ready for confrontation. We cannot take this sitting down. This is about our freedom, about our children, about our way of life. They have no right to take that away! They are overstepping the legitimate bounds of the social contract!”
What about water? If you think about it, perhaps the most obvious feature of water is that is unstable. It easily swishes back and forth this way and that way. Try walking on water and you’ll be reminded of just how unstable water really is. Therefore, the water people are those who just don’t know what to do. One minute they think one way and the next minute they think another way. They don’t have any plan and so they’ll do almost anything even if it’s illogical.
And there you have it, the four fundamental responses. Some people are quite polarized and have been very consistent, exhibiting essentially one of the four foundational elements throughout, while other people have been more balanced and have tried multiple approaches in an attempt to cope. But the point is that these are the four basic methods that people all over the world have employed in response to this situation.
Let’s look at another example—the responses of the Jewish people to the arrival of the Egyptian military when they were encamped at Yam Suf. The fire people said, “We have weapons. Let’s fight the Egyptians! Better to die fighting than be taken back to slavery!” The earth people said, “Are you crazy? We can’t win a battle against the military might of the Egyptians. Where’s the white flag? Surrender is the only logical response. Better to live, albeit as slaves, than to die here in the wilderness in a futile battle.” The air people said, “You are both being irrational. There’s no way we’re going back to slavery and there’s no way we can win a pitched battle against the Egyptians. Our only hope is to run away. Let’s get going, fast!” And finally, there were the water people. They didn’t say much. They didn’t really have a rational plan at all: they jumped into the sea and tried to swim across.
But what did Moshe tell the people? “Don’t be afraid. Stand still and see the salvation of Hashem…[He] will fight for you and you will be quiet.” And what did Hashem say to Moshe? “Tell B’nei Yisrael to travel forward.” How can this make sense? On the one hand, Moshe told the people to stand still and on the other hand Hashem told the people to go forward. Was Hashem contradicting Moshe? No, He was explaining the words of Moshe Rabbeinu. Only by standing still, calming down, and being quiet is one really able to move forward. This seemingly self-contradictory idea is actually a foundational principle for all areas of life. And it is only possible by connecting to Hashem and connecting to the Tzaddik, to Moshe Rabbeinu which is why the verse says, “And the people had emunah in Hashem and in Moshe His servant.”
It is instructive that once the order went out to travel forward, Nachshon ben Aminadav did not hesitate. He jumped into the sea and went forward just as Hashem had commanded Moshe. What does this teach us? Although there is nothing particularly redeeming in the first three approaches (fire, earth and air) which correspond to the three irredeemable klipot, there is sufficient merit for the redemption to come through water, which corresponds to klipah noga, the klipah that interfaces between good and bad and thus has the potential within it for both. In other words, of all of the natural approaches that man employs to solve his problems, the one that is the least logical or that seems to hold the least merit is closer to the truth than we might have at first thought.
Therefore, the only real response to challenges in life is to “stand still”, quiet down and stop trying to solve problems by natural means. This is why we call the fifth response, a completely transcendent response, a seemingly impossible response which is totally beyond nature, even above our own nature. It is beyond the four elements of fire, earth, wind, and water. When you can accept this, you will realize that this is the only true path to redemption: personal redemption, family redemption, community redemption, national redemption and global redemption.
We see this also when God’s answered Eliyahu in the cave at Mount Chorev. He was not in the great and mighty wind, or in the splitting of mountains, or in the breaking of rocks, or in the noise, or in the fire. He was only in the quiet, thin voice. Only in the quiet and stillness of one’s mind, when one learns to clear out one’s own nature and connect to Hashem with complete nullification, only then will one find the path forward, the path to total redemption. As David haMelech said, “Instead of my love, they accuse me, but I am prayer…I am poor and destitute, and my heart is empty within me.”
The key to all that we hope for can only be obtained if we return to Gan Eden, to the place watered by a single river, where everything is unified and above nature, to go upstream from the four rivers that came out of the garden and to return to the place of our origin, as it says, “A river goes out from Eden to water the garden, and [only then does] it separate and become four heads.” That is our responsibility; that is our destiny.