18 May 2023 Bamidbar/Shavuos 5783: The Desert & Matan Torah
With this week’s sedra, Bamidbar, we open up the fourth book of Torah, sefer Bamidbar. Bamidbar is also known as Sefer ha’Pekudim, the Book of Counting, and in our parsha, Hashem commands Moshe to take a census of the nation, all males between the ages of twenty and sixty, able bodied and ready to go out to battle (at this point, the nation believes it is journeying directly into the Holy Land, where it will battle against the Canaanite nations, the inhabitants of the land).
Famously, and for many reasons, Bamidbar is always read the Shabbos before Shavuos, zman matan Tora’sainu. Why do we read this sedra before the yomtov where we celebrate the giving of the Torah?
The Medrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7) teaches:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה‘ אֶל משֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי (במדבר א, א), לָמָּה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, מִכָּאן שָׁנוּ חֲכָמִים בִּשְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים נִתְּנָה הַתּוֹרָה, בָּאֵשׁ, וּבַמַּיִם, וּבַמִּדְבָּר. בָּאֵשׁ מִנַּיִן (שמות יט, יח): וְהַר סִינַי עָשַׁן כֻּלּוֹ וגו‘. וּבַמַּיִם מִנַּיִן, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שופטים ה, ד): גַּם שָׁמַיִם נָטָפוּ גַּם עָבִים נָטְפוּ מָיִם. וּבַמִּדְבָּר מִנַּיִן וַיְדַבֵּר ה‘ אֶל משֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, וְלָמָּה נִתְּנָה בִּשְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הַלָּלוּ, אֶלָּא מָה אֵלּוּ חִנָּם לְכָל בָּאֵי הָעוֹלָם כָּךְ דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה חִנָּם הֵם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ישעיה נה, א): הוֹי כָּל צָמֵא לְכוּ לַמַּיִם
And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai (Bamidbar 1:1). Why does the verse state ‘in the wilderness of Sinai’? From here the Sages learn that the Torah was given through three mediums: through fire (Shemos 19:18), through water (Shoftim 5:4), and through/in the desert (Bamidbar 1:1). And why was the Torah given through these three things? To teach you that just as these three mediums (fire, water and desert) are free to all, so too, the words of Torah are free (i.e.: accessible) to all (who want to learn Torah and live by her wisdom and commandments).
Bamidbar is always read before Shavuos to remind, exhort and encourage us to become receptacles ready to receive the Torah. Just like one can access fire, water and air (the desert), so too, for whoever so desires, the Torah is always accessible to each and every Jew, no matter their age, stage, or prior Torah knowledge. לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא – the Torah is not in the heavens that we need an astronaut to go up and get it for us! וְלֹא–מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם, הִוא, it is not across the seas on a remote island that we need sailors to sail the seas and retrieve it for us; כִּי–קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר, מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ – for it is very very close to us, in our mouths and in our hearts to learn and to do (Devarim 30:11-14).
For those who want to learn, and want to do, the Torah is our greatest treasure. As the tanna Rabbi Akiva teaches us (Pirkei Avos 3:14): חֲבִיבִין יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁנִּתַּן לָהֶם כְּלִי חֶמְדָּה. חִבָּה יְתֵרָה נוֹדַעַת לָהֶם שֶׁנִּתַּן לָהֶם כְּלִי חֶמְדָּה שֶׁבּוֹ נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: כִּי לֶקַח טוֹב נָתַתִּי לָכֶם, תּוֹרָתִי אַל תַּעֲזֹבוּ – Beloved is Israel that a precious vessel was given to them; especially beloved are they for it was made known to them that the desirable instrument, with which the world had been created, was given to them, as the verse states: A good instruction I give to you, my Torah do not abandon (Mishlei 4:2)
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z’l fascinatingly records an incident that occurred in England almost four hundred years ago. “One of the most amusing scenes in Anglo-Jewish history occurred on October 14, 1663. A mere seven years had passed since Oliver Cromwell had found no legal bar to Jews living in England (hence the so-called ‘return’ of 1656). A small synagogue was opened in Creechurch Land in the City of London, forerunner of Bevis Marks (1701), the oldest still-extant place of Jewish worship in Britain.
“The famous diarist Samuel Pepys decided to pay a visit to this new curiosity to see how Jews conducted themselves at prayer. What he saw amazed and scandalised him. As chance, or providence, would have it, the day of his visit turned out to be Simchat Torah. This is how he described what he saw:
‘And anon their Laws that they take out of the press [i.e., the Ark] are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing… But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true G-d, would make a man foreswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this’ [The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 2003].
“This was not the kind of behaviour he was used to in a house of worship. There is something unique about the relationship of the Jews to the Torah, the way we stand in its presence as if it were a king, dance with it as if it were a bride, listen to it telling our story and study it as, as we say in our prayers, ‘our life and the length of our days’. There are few more poignant lines of prayer than the one contained in a poem said at Ne’ila, at the end of Yom Kippur: ein shiur rak ha’Torah hazot – ‘nothing remains’ after the destruction of the Temple and the loss of the land, ‘but this Torah.’ A book, a scroll, was all that stood between Jews and despair…
“The desert became the birthplace of a wholly new relationship between G-d and our people, a relationship built on covenant, speech and love as concretised in the Torah. Distant from the great centres of civilisation, a people found themselves alone with G-d and there consummated a bond that neither exile nor tragedy could break. That is the truth at the beating heart of our faith: that it is not power or politics that link us to G-d, but love” (Essays on Ethics, p.215-216, 219-220).
May we learn the lessons of ‘Bamidbar’ as we prepare to once again accept the Torah this Shavuos, and make room for her in our hearts, in our minds and in our lives.
,בברכת חודש טוב ושבת שלום