Shavuot is coming. Are you prepared? Are you ready to receive the Torah? Have you put aside your slave mentality and worked on your character flaws, refining your inner person in order to receive Divine revelation?
Good, because I haven’t either!
Regardless, Shavuot is only a week away, so now is the time to rededicate. Wait, rabbi isn’t every moment an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to God and recovery? Exactly!
In fact, as we begin to read the fourth book of the Torah, the book of Numbers, our epic saga is now a full year out of Egypt, the fledgling nation continuing their journey to the promised land.
According to our sages, Ezra the Scribe assigned the Torah readings so that we would always read from the book of Numbers the week prior to Shavuot. The question is: why? What does this Torah portion have to say to remind us about receiving the Torah at Sinai?
One answer is that it’s a buffer. According to the Rim, (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rothenberg Alter, 1799 – 1866), Ezra wanted to have a week gap in between lasts week’s Torah portion, Bekhukotai, which dealt with the various blessings if we follow God’s commandments and the punishments if we do not. In other words, we need some space and time before accepting the Torah – space and time uncluttered by thoughts of reward and punishment. For the Rim, we shouldn’t feel coerced into covenant and relationship with the Almighty; it requires our willing consent.
Another answer – presented by one of the Rim’s successors, the Sefat Emet (Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847-1906) – has to do with the symbolic meaning of how the Israelites camped at Sinai, which is described in our portion. The Sefat Emet quotes a rabbinic teaching describing the cohesion the Israelites had when they arrived at Mount Sinai:
“Israel camped there.” Noting the Hebrew in the singular not the plural, the Rabbis explain that the entire Israelite community encamped “like one person with one heart.” For the Sefat Emet, part of the reason the Israelites were capable of receiving God’s presence and Torah was that the community was unified. The community came together after a shared experience – the Exodus and the splitting of the sea. He says that, because they were all on the same page spiritually, they achieved an elevated consciousness that culminated with God speaking to them directly.
Which brings us to our Torah portion…
The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: The Israelites shall camp each with his ceremonial flag, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance (Numbers 2:1-2).
God commands the leaders of the community to set up an organized encampment (see images), divided into tribal formation and clans with precise responsibilities that revolve around the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Further, each tribe is counted and given explicit marching orders: “As they camp, so they shall march, each in position, by their standards” (Numbers 2:17).
For years I thought the “wandering in the desert for 40 years” was chaotic. A wandering that lacked direction and order. Why did it take so long? However, the text itself is illuminating the detail-oriented nature of the time in the wilderness. In fact, the Israelites would only begin their various journeys when the cloud of glory lifted from the tabernacle and only stop when the cloud rested (Exodus 40:36-38).
Which means everything was calculated. Every move was made with intention and thought. And as this week’s reading indicates, each tribe, each clan, each member is counted and given a sacred task.
Similarly, in our community. We all matter. We all play an important role. If we don’t know what our role is, that doesn’t give us free reign to neglect our responsibilities. Rather, it requires us to ask: what does my community need from me? What unique capabilities, skills and passions can I access and harness to help inch us a little closer to our sacred mission? To move our ship closer to safe harbor.
That is why we read this Torah portion the week before the Festival of Shavuot. It’s a reminder that we have a part to play in redemption. That our individual lives – our individual enlightenment – like strands in a massive rope, are intertwined with the progress and fulfillment of our communities.
In the last interview that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave, just a week prior to his death in 1972, he provided a word of advice to the youth:
I would say, let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can, everyone, do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all the frustrations and all disappointments…
Every action. Every word. Every Person. IT ALL MATTERS!
So let’s keep marching towards the promised land – crawling, if we need to – but we’ll do it guided by the Divine One and supported by our community. And together, we’ll bring about redemption despite the chaos that may envelop the world we live in.
Now I’m a little more prepared for Shavuot!