Shir ha-Shirim XVIII Part Three: Sefirah 39
Rabbi Chama bar Ukvah said: Just as water makes plants grow, so the words of the Torah nurture everyone who labors over them as they require. Shall I say that just as water becomes stale and sour in the jar, so the words of the Torah? Not so, since it says, that it is like wine: just as, the longer wine matures in the jar the better it becomes, so the more the words of Torah become ingrained in a man, the greater the reputation they win for him.
Shall I say that just as water after being drunk is imperceptible in the body, so are the words of the Torah? Not so, since it is compared with wine: just as wine leaves its mark when drunk, so words of Torah leave their mark, and people point with a finger and say, “That is a scholar!” (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1.2.3:3)
The Midrash on Dodecha described the relationship between different verses, and insisted that one verse illuminates another. It began by focusing on a verse comparing Torah to water, wine, oil and milk. It then derived from the comparison with water how we can approach Torah for different purposes; purity, cleanliness, covering sins etc. If we are to learn about the nature of Torah from a verse, rather than what we believe about Torah, we must take the verse seriously, and if there is a negative connotation of the comparison with water, we must deal with it.
Why does Rabbi Chama bar Ukvah need a verse comparing Torah to water to teach us that Torah nurtures the growth of those who labor over it? Why does he need the verse that compares Torah to wine to teach that Torah does not become stale and sour as does water?
Rabbi Chama bar Ukvah takes the comparison to water quite seriously: Torah can become stale and sour; if studied as water. If a person focuses only on the flow of new water, i.e. information and knowledge, and does not simultaneously focus on its quality as wine, treasuring what one has studied, allowing it to mature and become ingrained, part of his being, the negative comparison with water, become stale and sour, will happen. Each comparison, to water, wine, oil, milk etc. must be part of the person’s Torah study.
The person who has achieved the “water” approach, must then develop the wine approach. He must work so that his studies, “mature” in him, become ingrained to the point that people, just by observing him, will remark, “This is a Torah scholar!”