Ironically, we begin reading Sefer B’midbar (the Book of Numbers) this shabbat. Shavuot, the occasion in our liturgical calendar when we relive our people’s sojourn at Mt. Sinai, where they received Torah and entered into an eternal covenant with God, begins this coming Tuesday at sundown. Yet before that, this coming shabbat, we read parshat B’midbar, which opens with our people preparing to depart Mt. Sinai after the revelation. Seems backwards, doesn’t it?
The Rabbis often explained difficult passages by saying ain mukdam v’ain me’uchar ba-Torah (“there is no early or late in the Torah”) meaning that the accounts in Torah are not always chronologically arranged. That is not our problem here (if, indeed, we have a problem), since reading Parshat B’midbar this shabbat occurs merely as a coincidence of our cycle of reading. However, it would have been nice to celebrate Shavuot – when we will roll the Torah back to Exodus 19 and reread the account of Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah), and then the following shabbat read Parshat B’midbar.
This occasions several thoughts:
First, for Revelation to be meaningful, it might be sufficient to relive it publicly and communally twice each year – when we read Parshat Yitro (which contains Exodus chapter 19) and with even greater celebration and attention on Shavuot, but it is not sufficient to relive it personally and privately only twice a year. Revelation is continual: it is the ceaseless suffusing of Torah values through our lives so the direction of our lives and the choices we make are informed by Torah and in response to God. It’s difficult to maintain this kind of mindfulness, but there is much in our tradition to help us. Our Torah liturgy – each time Torah is read publicly, but especially on shabbat – is intended to help us achieve a semblance of that experience – perhaps as “booster shots” from one Shavuot to the next. Torah study can help us achieve the experience of Torah al levavcha (“in our hearts”). Private prayer and meditation is grounding for many people.
Second, Parshat Bemidbar begins with an account of a census taken in the Wilderness. Ostensibly for the purpose of determining how many men were available to bear arms and defend the nation, the census reminds us that Jewish spirituality is not a solo sport, it’s a group endeavor. We live in a society that promotes rugged individualism in every realm, from sports to spirituality. But Judaism is a team sport, and life is best lived with other people in healthy interdependent relationships. We count people to make sure everyone counts. The manner in which the Tabernacle was dissembled and transported through the Wilderness by many, many people, each of whom carried a critically necessary part, and then reassembled together, is a magnificent model. Torah comes not only from Sinai, but from the midst of peoplehood and community; that is why when the Israelites set up camp, the Tabernacle is in the center (see Numbers, chapter 2).
Third, for Revelation to have depth and sticking power, we need teachers who will open new doors for us and keep the experience of revelation flowing. For most of us, truly learning Torah doesn’t happen either automatically or by ourselves. Rabbi Yehoshua b. Perachyah taught Aseh l’kha rav, u’k’nei l’kha chaveir (“Get yourself a teacher and acquire a friend to study,” Pirke Avot 1:6). Parshat Bemidbar closes with a description of the election, organization, and service of the Levites, who were charged not only with sacrificial service in the Tabernacle, but also with teaching Torah and leading worship. This is a reminder that we need to find opportunities to learn that will stretch us, challenge us, and help us grow in Torah.
What combines all three observations? They all require effort and, and if we have isolated ourselves, breaking out of our shells and joining with others to study and celebrate.
Shabbat shalom and Chag sameach.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman