Bamidbar 5781: All for One, One for All!
Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )
GOOD MORNING! This upcoming Sunday night, May 16th, begins the holiday of Shavuot. In Israel, this is a one-day holiday (ending on Monday night), while in the diaspora it is celebrated for two days (ending on Tuesday night). Unfortunately, the vast majority of the Jewish people are either unfamiliar with this important holiday or only dimly aware of its incredible significance.
Of the three “major” festivals, Shavuot is perhaps the least appreciated. In the Bible it is referred to as a “harvest festival” and commemorates the end of the grain harvest, which began with barley during Passover and ends with wheat at the time of Shavuot.
In Jewish tradition, Shavuot has several interchangeable nomenclatures – each representing a different aspect of the holiday. The literal translation of the Hebrew word “shavuot” is “weeks” and this name first appears in the verse, “You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the first fruits of wheat harvest…” (Exodus 34:22).
The reason it is called “weeks” is because we are commanded to count seven days of seven weeks from the second day of Passover, and to celebrate the fiftieth day as a holiday (see Leviticus 23:15). The also explains why the English name for this holiday is Pentecost, which means fiftieth in Greek.
(As an aside, this is also the source for the Christian day of Pentecost. Early Christianity was primarily preoccupied with establishing a religion that was familiar to the people they were trying to convert – the local Jewish population. Thus, they copied many of the traditions that were already familiar in Judaism. For example, Passover became Easter and in Spanish the similarity in name is unmistakable – “Pascua” is a clear derivative of “Pesach.” So too, just as in the Jewish tradition, the Christian day called Pentecost is the fiftieth day from Easter.)
Because it is a harvest festival, it is also known by its Hebrew equivalent – “Chag Hakatzir” (see Exodus 22:16). In the times of the Holy Temple, the Jewish nation was charged with gathering the “bikkurim” or “first fruits” of the Seven Species for which the land of Israel is specifically blessed; wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and date honey. These “first fruits” were brought to the Temple and offered to the priests. Thus, the holiday is also called “Yom Habbikurim – Day of First Fruits.”
However, the most significant aspect of the holiday of Shavuot is that, according to Jewish tradition, this is when the Almighty gave the Torah to the Jewish nation. This was the day that Moses ascended Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments.
Thus another name, and the one we use most prominently in the liturgy, is “Zman Matan Toraseinu – the Time of the Giving of Our Torah.” It is therefore impossible to overstate the significance of this holiday.
According to Jewish tradition, The Ten Commandments listed in the book of Exodus are purposefully made up of 620 letters (yup, I counted them). There are 613 letters until the last two words of the Ten Commandments, “asher l’reyecha – those of your friend.” According to our sages, this corresponds to the 613 mitzvot or “commandments” in the Torah that the Jewish nation accepted upon themselves at Mount Sinai.
Various reasons have been suggested as to the significance of the remaining seven letters that make up the Ten Commandments.
According to Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (1269-1343), these seven letters represent the seven Noachide Laws: (1) the prohibition against idol worship; (2) the prohibition against murder; (3) the prohibition against adultery; (4) the prohibition against blasphemy; (5) the prohibition against theft; (6) the prohibition against certain forms of animal cruelty; (7) the obligation to establish courts of justice (see Bal Haturim Exodus 20:14).
Fascinatingly, the last two words of the Ten Commandments that comprise the seven letters – “asher l’reyecha – those of your friend” – now take on a deeper meaning. Included within the scope of Torah is a universal obligation of morality for the entire world. Even though the Torah was only accepted as a sacred responsibility by the Jewish people, we are not the only ones bound to live by God’s laws. In fact, the laws of the nations of the world are referred to here as “those of your friend.”
This unifying aspect of Torah is actually the basis on which the Torah was given to the Jewish people. When the Jewish people arrived at Mount Sinai we find a remarkable attitude among the newly formed nation; “and there Israel camped before the mountain” (Shemos 19:2). Rashi (ad loc) explains that the people had adopted a rather unique mindset to one another – “It was like a single man with a single purpose.”
In general, there are two methods in which groups of people can unify. The first is when a disparate set of personalities unite because they have a singular purpose; this is how Rashi describes Pharaoh rallying his Egyptian nation to chase down the Jewish people who were escaping Egypt – “a single purpose, a single man” (Shemos 14:10).
The second way is when people come together and unite as individuals and merge their identities into “a one,” and only then find a common purpose to fulfill the desires of the merged identity. This second method is what happened at Mount Sinai. Rashi explains that the encampment at Mount Sinai was without any fighting or bickering; there was no feeling of imposing on another’s space.
Often when we come into close physical proximity with strangers we feel uncomfortable. For example, on a plane it is very awkward to come into physical contact with the passenger beside you. Yet if the passenger beside you is a relative, it’s acceptable to lean on one another. When there is a unique connection there is no feeling of imposition.
So too, at Mount Sinai the Jewish people merged their identities into a unified oneness that allowed them to live together in absolute harmony as one big happy family. This was the backdrop for the events leading to Hashem gifting the Torah to the Jewish people – and their unity was a key element of the story.
One of the more painful experiences for parents is watching their adult children fight and not get along. This truth may be applied to the Almighty as well. After all, the Master of the Universe is also known as our Father. The Talmud asks and answers (Yoma 9b), “Why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time they occupied themselves with Torah, mitzvot, and acts of kindness? Because baseless hatred prevailed.”
According to the Talmud, the Second Temple was destroyed for baseless hatred between Jews. Two millennia later and we are still in the very same exile stretching back to that terrible tragedy. But what exactly is baseless hatred? After all, there must be some reason for the hatred?
Baseless hatred is loathing someone simply because they are different and not the same as you. You begin to rationalize that they are evil and thus worthy of your scorn. An egocentric person begins to believe that everything revolves around him and that he alone knows the just path. He begins to disparage, discredit, and delegitimize anything that is different from him.
Unfortunately, this is even true among some religious Jews and has created terrible divisions within the Jewish communities. We have lost sight of the bigger picture – that whether we are Ashkenazi or Sephardi, “ultra-orthodox” or “modern orthodox” – we are all in the service of the Almighty and must strive to fulfill God’s mission for the world together.
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who was the Chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Jerusalem in the 1920’s, wrote about this very issue. Rabbi Kook himself was a target of much derision and animosity – he suffered greatly for being one of the first religious Zionists and for trying to see the good in all types of Jews. He wrote, “The Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred and it will only be rebuilt through baseless love!” Quite tellingly, the numerical value of the Hebrew word for love (ahava) is the same as the numerical value as the Hebrew word for one (echad).
That is one of the messages of Shavuot. We received the Torah as a unified entity and we must once again unify to fulfill God’s plan for the world.
Bamidbar, Numbers 1:1 - 4:20
In the second year of travel in the desert, Moshe and Aharon were commanded by the Almighty to count all male Israelites between 20 and 60. There were 603,550 available for military service. The tribe of Levi was exempt because of their special duties as religious leaders. (It is probably from here that countries give divinity deferments to clergy and divinity students.)
The twelve tribes were directed regarding the formation (three tribes were on each side of the Portable Sanctuary) in which they were to camp and travel.
The 22,300 Levites were commanded in the Sanctuary service. The family of Gershon was to transport the coverings of the Sanctuary. The family of Kehos carried the Ark, Table, Menorah, and Altars. The family of Merari transported the boards, pillars, bolts, and sockets.
The truly righteous do not complain of the darkness, they increase the light. They do not complain of ignorance, they increase wisdom.
— Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook