Parshas Bamidbar – Me, You, Am Yisrael

This week’s parsha, Parshas Bamidbar, is always read the Shabbos before Shavuos.  Many reasons have been given to explain the connection between Bamidbar and Shavuos.

R’ Dr. Abraham J. Twerski writes, “The first portion of Bamidbar is generally read before Shavuos, the holiday which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai.  Inasmuch as there are no coincidences, we may assume that this portion (Bamidbar) is a prerequisite for receiving the Torah.

“In relating the episode at Sinai, the Torah states: וַיִּחַן-שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל, נֶגֶד הָהָר, and Israel camped there, opposite the mountain (Shemos 19:2).  The Torah uses the singular (lashon yachid, וַיִּחַן), lit. he camped, rather than vayachanu (lashon rabim), they camped.  [How can a nation of upwards of two million people be described as encamping as one, in the singular?]  Rashi (ibid) explains: כְּאִישׁ אֶחָד בְּלֵב אֶחָד – they camped like one man with one heart; the singular language indicating that all the Israelites were united as one person.  It is this unity that made them worthy of receiving the Torah.

“There is nothing so dear to G-d as unity among His children.  So much so, that the Gemara states that when Jews are united, G-d forgives even their gravest sins.  Furthermore, the Sages teach, ‘אֵין לָךְ אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ שָׁעָה, וְאֵין לָךְ דָּבָר שֶׁאֵין לוֹ מָקוֹם – You have no person without his hour and no thing without its place’ (Pirkei Avos 4:3).  One of the chassidic masters asked, ‘If every person has a specific time and place, why is there so much dissension among us?’  He answered, ‘Because many people are envious of others, and wish to occupy their (i.e.: the other person’s!) time and place.’  If we were free of envy, we might achieve the coveted unity.

What, then, is the connection between Parshas Bamidbar and Shavuos, Zman Matan Torasainu

Answers R’ Dr. Twerski, “This portion of the Torah describes the organization of the Israelites in the desert (which is necessary for delineating their tribal encampment around the Mishkan).  As the verse says: אִישׁ עַל-דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם, יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – The Children of Israel shall encamp, each person by his banner according to the insignia of his father’s household (Bamidbar 2:2).  Each person knew his place.  The Kohanim had their place, the Leviim had their place, and every single person knew his rightful place.  It was this knowledge and acceptance of one’s place that enabled the Israelites to be a (single, cohesive) unit rather than fragmented.

“We may conceptualize unity of a nation as a symphony orchestra, where each musician has a designated assignment.  If the percussionist or the flute player would balk at his assignment because the violinist plays a better part, the performance would suffer.  No one musician is of greater importance than another.  This is equally true of the Jewish nation.  We all have specific assignments: Kohanim, Leviim, Israelites, men, women, Torah scholars, lay people.  We are one harmonious unit.

“The message of Parshas Bamidbar is the message of unity: ‘The Children of Israel encamp, each person by his banner.’  This is why the Torah reading of Bamidbar precedes Shavuos.  Unity is the prerequisite for acceptance of Torah” (Twerski on Chumash, p.268).

In the dessert, Bamidbar, each tribe camped under their unique flag and banner, in the formation that Yaakov Avinu had prescribed for them (and the formation by which the brothers – the fathers of the tribes – carried the remains of Yaakov Avinu from Egypt, to Israel, for burial).  Each one recognized his place, strengths, uniqueness and contributions to the nation; as well as recognizing the strengths of his fellow Israelites, who camped under their own flag and banner, in their own place.

No one tribe and no one flag was more important than the next.  Each of the tribes came together, with unity, to make a united people, Am Yisrael.  It is no wonder, then, that we read this parsha before Shavuos, when we recall that achdus, unity, is THE prerequisite for Torah.

R’ Dr. Twerski tells over the following story, which he calls “one of my favorite folktales of the wise men of Chelm.”  One day, a citizen of Chelm was at the public bathhouse.  It suddenly dawned on him that without clothing, most people look alike.  He became quite anxious with the thought, “When it comes time to go home, how will I know which one is me!?”

After some thought, he came up with a brilliant solution.  He found a piece of red string and tied it around his big toe.  He was now distinctly identifiable!  Unfortunately, in the process of sudsing and showering, the red string fell off his foot, and when another bather stepped on it, it stuck to his foot!

When it was time to leave, the first bather looked at his foot, and seeing nothing on it, was perplexed.  Then he noticed the other man with the red string on his foot.  He approached him and said, “I know who you are, but can you tell me, who am I!?” (The Rabbi and The Nuns, p.163-164).

As we come to accept the Torah again this year (and yes, Shavuos 5780 is, sadly, different than Shavuos of any other year that we can remember) we must remember the lessons of our desert encampment.  To be part of Am Yisrael is to be proud of who I am, happy with whom my friend is; to know my own distinct flag and banner, and to respect the flag and banner of my friend.  Only then can we camp b’achdus, like one man with one heart, ready to accept the Torah anew again.

The Kotzker Rebbe (d.1859) would say, “If I am I, because I am I; and you are you, because you are you; then I am I and you are you.  But If I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you” (Quoted in Great Jewish Wisdom, Artscroll, p.45).

As we prepare to once again declare, “all that G-d has spoken, we will do and we will listen” (Shemos 24:7), let us embrace our place, our strengths, our banner, our identity, and let us rejoice and respect that of our friend’s.  So that I am I, and you are you, and together, we are Am Yisrael.

בברכת חודש טוב ושבת שלום,


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