This week’s Torah portion opens the Book of Numbers, or Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20). It is called Numbers in English due to the book opening with a census. In Hebrew, Bamidbar, means “in the wilderness” as that is where the Israelites are on their journey towards the Promised Land. And, this week’s portion is always read on the Shabbat prior to the Shavuot holiday. (Saturday night/Sunday – we will observe Shavuot with Yizkor on Sunday, June 5, 2022 at 10 am.)
Shavuot, also known as the Feast of Weeks, commemorates the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai to the Jewish people. This occurs on the 50th day after the 49 days of counting the Omer. The Hebrew date is the 6th of Sivan. Shavuot is one of the three biblically based pilgrimage holidays and is also known as the ‘dairy festival.’ According to tradition, when we were receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, we were pure and innocent like newborn babies are, and babies subsist on milk. Thus, we have cheesecake, chocolate milk, cheese and crackers, yogurts, milkshakes and many other delicious dairy treats. Yes, I know – many Jews are lactose intolerant and as such, alternatives have been created.
This year is no different. I believe that this Torah reading teaches us important lessons about the holiday. Bamidbar presents the names and leaders of each of the tribes of Israel. It can be suggested that the delineation of the leaders of each tribe is linked to Shavuot as it promotes the idea that the heads of the community should be teachers of Torah. In addition, we read in the text how the Israelites are encamped around the Tabernacle. The medieval commentator, Cassuto, suggests the similarity to Shavuot as he calls the Tabernacle a “walking-Sinai.” We simulated Sinai as we wandered through the desert, constantly reliving the experience of revelation.
Bamidbar begins by telling us that God spoke to Moses in the Sinai wilderness. The rabbis have taught us that the confluence of Bamidbar and Shavuot is to underscore the great significance of the Torah having been given in the desert — no man’s land. They point out to us that the location of the vast expanse of the wilderness is significant for it teaches us that the Torah is not the exclusive property of given individuals. Living a desert existence makes us feel vulnerable. Giving the Torah in the desert also teaches that Torah can only be acquired if a person humbles oneself.
Another thought is that perhaps the key relationship between Bamidbar and Shavuot is “counting.” Not only does our portion deal with the census — the counting — of the Jewish people, but the Torah, when mentioning Shavuot, stresses the counting of days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. In the words of the Torah, “seven weeks shall you count.” (Leviticus, 23:15) This teaches that as important as the holiday of Shavuot may be, equally important is the count toward the holiday.
An important lesson emerges. Whenever we are engaged in a particular project, whether we are working toward a professional goal or striving to achieve in our personal lives, it is important to reflect and to evaluate how much time has already been spent on the endeavor and what is the time required to achieve its realization.
Evaluating forces us to consider the gift of every moment we have. The rabbis teach us that we must not only realize what the years have done to us, but what we have done with our years. Hence the confluence of Bamidbar and Shavuot. Bamidbar teaches the significance of each person and Shavuot teaches the importance of every moment for the individual. In the words of the Psalmist, “Teach us to number our days.” (Psalms, 90:12)