Bamidbar-Shavuos: Lessons from Sinai

Parshas Bamidbar begins the fourth of the five books of Torah, and with its opening, the Children of Israel prepare to depart from Mt. Sinai.  It was at Mt. Sinai that they witnessed the great Revelation, received the Torah and mitzvos, bound themselves by oath to do and listen to all that G-d shall command, built the Mishkan, and learned the relevant Levite laws for serving in the Mishkan.  Now, a census of the nation is taken, encampment and marching formation is delineated, and the people are ready to go forth to the Holy Land.  

Many reasons are given for the connection between Bamidbar and Shavuos, zman matan Torasainu.  Rabbi Shmuel Goldin proposes a most thought-provoking and compelling link between the parsha and Chag Ha’Shavuos.  R’ Goldin writes that, “The calendar-created relationship between the opening of the book of Bamidbar and Shavuos is puzzling.  The book of Bamidbar opens with G-d’s detailed instructions to the Israelites preparatory to their departure from Sinai.  Shavuot, on the other hand, marks the nation’s arrival at Sinai and the onset of Revelation, all of which occurs two years earlier.  

“Why do we read, each year, of our leaving Sinai specifically on the Shabbos before we arrive? What lessons can be gleaned from this phenomenon?  More broadly, with the opening of Bamidbar, the question could well be raised: What place does this book occupy within the eternal Torah text?  Why are the time-bound details of Bamidbar significant enough to record for posterity?  In what way is this text relevant for later generations?

“The connection between Bamidbar and Shavuot is a clear reminder of a fundamental truth: The most important moment of Revelation is the moment the Israelites leave.  The instant of the nations departure from Sinai determines the quality of all that has come before.  If the Bnei Yisrael leave the site of Revelation changed by the experience, carrying the Torah with them and within them, then the dramatic events of Sinai will have achieved their purpose.  If, however, upon leaving the site of Revelation, the people leave Sinai behind, then those miraculous proceedings will have been little more than a divinely orchestrated ‘sound and lights show,’ impressing the observers in transient fashion.  

“As we open the book of Bamidbar each year on the Shabbos before Shavuos, as we read of our departure before we arrive, we proclaim our understanding that the years spent at Sinai achieve their significance in retrospect

On a temporal level [given the tragic narratives, sins and rebellions that fill the parshios of Bamidbar], the departure from Sinai clearly leads to failure.

“On the other hand, in spite of the failure of the generation of the Exodus, when we move beyond the time-bound specificity of the narrative, eternal lessons begin to emerge.  Revelation does successfully launch the majestic story of the Jewish people.  Transcending the tragedies of the moment, a nation is forged at the foot of Sinai: a people that will be bound, across time and place, by the commandments and values of the Torah law.  In a timeless, eternal dimension, the departure from Sinai leads to success…

“Properly understood, the journey from Sinai represents not only the passage of those present at that historic moment, but the launching of our national journey across the ages.  G-d’s instructions to the nation prior to their departure from Sinai reveal the human elements He considers critical not only to the success of that generation’s mission, but to the success of the entire Jewish enterprise.  Even the tragic shortcomings of our ancestors are powerfully relevant, revealing inherent flaws that threaten our own personal and communal achievements, as well.  Finally, the Israelites’ forty years of wilderness wandering emerge as a critically formative period, cementing the relationship between G-d and His people and effecting essential changes in the developing nation’s psyche.  

“With the departure from Sinai serving as the turning point, the momentous events towards which the first half of the book of Bamidbar leads and from which the second half descends, this book of the Torah emerges as blueprint for our journey across time.  The ancient passage of our ancestors – bamidbar, in the wilderness – yields surprising lessons that continue to shape our lives (today, and through the ages)” (Unlocking, Vayikra, p.3-6).

The moment the nation departs from Sinai is the moment their arrival at Sinai can be coined a success, or failure.  If the lessons from Revelation remain with the people upon departure, then the arrival at Sinai has been a success.  While the people did, indeed, fail in the short term – as the book of Bamidbar narrates – in the long term, with our march through the millennia as a people faithful to G-d – the lessons and messages from Sinai were a resounding success. 

R’ Boruch Perton relates that, “When I was Mechina (in Yeshivas Ner Yisrael Baltimore), I had earned the rank of Eagle Scout with the Boy Scouts.  I wanted an extra ‘out Shabos’ to attend the special celebration being held in my honor.  I asked Rebbi (R’ Yosef Tendler z’l), who had never heard of an Eagle Scout, for permission to go.  I explained what an Eagle Scout was, and he said, ‘You can go on one condition.  I will write a dvar Torah that you will say at the event.’  And he did.  It was about priorities and values, and stressed that the most important thing in this world is not being an Eagle Scout, but being a ben Torah.

I went, and I gave the dvar Torah.  Without exaggeration, every time I spent Shabos with him for the next thirty years, he reminded me of that dvar Torah.  In November 2010, I was spending a Shabos with Rebbi when his brother, R’ Shalom, was there.  Once again, Rebbi reminded me of that dvar Torah, saying it over to his brother at the Shabos table” (I am Your Servant, Artscroll, p.246).

Indeed, כֹּל אֲשֶׁרדִּבֶּר הנַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָעall that G-d has spoken, we will do and we will listen (Shemos 24:7); כי הם חיינו ואורך ימינוfor Torah and mitzvos are our life and the length of our days.  

,בברכת שבת שלום וחג שבועות שמח


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