Torah Weekly - Parshat Bamidbar

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Parshat Bamidbar

For the week ending 5 Sivan5761 / May 25 & 26, 2001

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    The Book of Bamidbar — "In the desert" — begins with G-d commanding Moshe to take a census of all men over age twenty — old enough for service. The count reveals just over 600,000. The levi’im are counted separately later, because their service will be unique. They will be responsible for transporting the Mishkan and its furnishings and assembling them when the nation encamps. The 12 Tribes of Israel, each with its banner, are arranged around the Mishkan in four sections: East, south, west and north. Since Levi is singled out, the tribe of Yosef is split into two tribes, Efraim and Menashe, so there will be four groups of three. When the nation travels, they march in a formation similar to the way they camp. A formal transfer is made between the first born and the levi’im, whereby the levi’im take over the role the firstborn would have had serving in the Mishkan if not for the sin of the golden calf. The transfer is made using all the 22,000 surveyed levi’im from one month old and up. Only levi’im between 30 and 50 will work in the Mishkan. The remaining firstborn sons are redeemed with silver, similar to the way we redeem our firstborn today. The sons of Levi are divided in three main families, Gershon, Kehat and Merari (besides the kohanim — the special division from Kehat’s family). The family of Kehat carried the menorah, the table, the altar and the holy ark. Because of their utmost sanctity, the ark and the altar are covered only by Aharon and his sons, before the levi’im prepare them for travel.




    "In the Desert..." (1:1)

    Some 3,300 years ago, a little-known Middle Eastern people gathered around a small mountain in a trackless wilderness and underwent an experience which changed the history of the world.

    For the first time since the beginning of the universe, the Creator spoke to an entire nation. The nation was called Israel. The mountain was called Sinai. At Sinai, G-d gave the Jewish People the Torah, the mystical blueprint of the Creation. Why did G-d choose a desert as the site for this encounter?


    We tend to think of the Jewish festivals as remembrances to remind us of critical events in Jewish history and that these events recede further into the past every year. This is not so. Time is circular. Every year we re-visit the same place in time, the same reality. Every Pesach, Shavuot and Succot we relive the original event. We do not merely remember what took place on these days, we re-experience them. The word for festival in Hebrew is moed. Moed means "an appointed time and place of meeting." Every year, we return to that same meeting place in time. We return to that same spiritual landscape.

    There’s something very unusual, however, about the landscape of Shavuot. It’s a meeting place devoid of distinguishing features. It is an empty landscape. A desert. Our other meetings with the Creator all have much more visible scenery: At Pesach we experience the spiritual vista of matzah, the seder, the four cups of wine, ma nishtana. At Succot we return to the landscape of the "four species" and the succah.

    Shavuot, however, has no unique mitzvah, no identifying leitmotif, no recognizable landmark in its scenery. Shavuot is an empty landscape. Why?

    Let me ask another question. In one of the highlights of the Shabbat morning prayers, the mussaf kedusha, we employ the language of those incorporeal celestial beings, the "angels" (for lack of a better English term). We say: "His glory fills the world. His ministering angels ask one another ‘Where is His glory?’ " If His glory fills the world, why should it be necessary for His ministering angels to ask where His glory is? Surely nothing is more visible than something that fills the world?


    When something fills the whole world, when it fills all reality, you can’t see it anymore. The ministering angels have to ask "Where is His glory" precisely because it fills the whole world.

    Shavuot is the day which completes creation. When G-d gives the Torah to the Jewish People, the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle of creation falls into place. Instantly all the lines between the separate pieces of the jigsaw of existence vanish, revealing a complete and perfect whole.

    Shavuot is the day of the completion of existence itself. The landscape looks empty because it contains everything. We can only determine features in a landscape when we see one thing as being separate from another. It is only the difference between things that allows us to see things at all. But if we were to look at "everything," we would see nothing.
    Shavuot is the empty landscape — full with all creation.


    Hoshea 2:1-22




    "And it shall be in the place where it will be said of them ‘You are not My people,’ it will be said to them ‘The children of the living G-d.’ " (2:1)

    The history of the Jewish People shows that it is specifically in those lands in which they have been oppressed and separated into ghettos that Jewish Life has flourished.

    Ironically, where they have experienced acceptance and dwelled in comfort with equal rights, the scourge of assimilation and the disappearing Jew have taken root.

    This spiritual holocaust has caused a hemorrhage which has ravaged whole limbs of the body of the Jewish People.
    The prophet Hoshea teaches us here that "It shall be in the place that it will be said of them ‘you are not My people’ " — i.e., wherever Jews are rejected and scorned as foreigners — "it will be said to you ‘children of the living G-d.’ " — specifically there will they guard well their source, the Torah, until it will become apparent and clear that they are "Children of the Living G-d."

    · Bikkurei Aviv


    Written and Compiled by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair
    General Editor: Rabbi Moshe Newman
    Production Design: Michael Treblow

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