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Shavuos and Parshas Bamidbar: A Reader

The holiday of Shavuos, known as Zman Matan Toraseinu, commemorates Maamad Har Sinai, when all of Klal Yisrael heard Hashem’s voice, saw thunder and heard lightning, and received the Ten Commandments. There is a Machlokes in the Gemara regarding the exact date of Matan Torah (Vav Sivan vs. Zayin Sivan), and as a result, we celebrate both days. Infamously, following Matan Torah, Moshe ascended to receive the rest of the Torah from Hashem directly, promising to return forty days later. Due to a miscalculation of about six hours according to Rashi (Shmos 32:1), Bnei Yisrael feared that Moshe had died when he was delayed in descending, and Chet Ha’Egel ensued. When Moshe returned, he saw Bnei Yisrael worshipping the golden calf, and promptly smashed the Luchos.

A few weeks ago, I was with my close friend Adina Hennes on a Friday afternoon when she was on the phone with her grandmother, as is their weekly custom. My friend’s grandmother, Rebbetzin Aviva Kaminetzky, is an incredibly learned and brilliant woman with an insatiable love for Torah and Limud Torah that she enjoys sharing with others. On speaker phone in Adina’s car, she posed the following question about Shavuos that has stayed with me ever since:

Why do we celebrate Shavuos as the day we received the Torah if ultimately that first set of Luchos was shattered? Why celebrate that moment in history when it was just the beginning of the end for that generation, most of whom were killed as punishment for participating in Chet Ha’Egel? Why memorialize an incident that set off such a terrible chain reaction, resulting in a shameful, nation-wide sin? If in truth we reaccept the Torah every day, if in truth we received the second set of Luchos when Hashem forgave us for Chet Ha’Egel on Yom Kippur when He said “Salachti Kidvarecha,” why commemorate the sixth or seventh day of Sivan as “Zman Matan Toraseinu?” Surely this is a moment we’d rather sweep under the rug of our collective history, not celebrate annually for all the world to see!

In contemplating this question and some possible answers, let’s explore another question posed by the Midrash Tanchuma on Parshas Chukas. Given that Bnei Yisrael were redeemed from Egypt with the ultimate goal of entering Eretz Yisrael, why didn’t we simply wait until we entered Eretz Yisrael to receive the Torah? Why was the Torah given in the desert altogether? The Midrash provides three possible explanations. First, the desert is no-man’s-land, unowned by any one nation. Similarly, no one person, tribe, or nation can lay unique claims to the Torah. It is equally free and available to all of us. Second, just as the desert is a land where no planting or harvesting takes place, so, too, one who studies Torah is exempt from such activities. Furthermore, just as nothing grows in the desert, one who studies Torah must make himself like the desert, free from all distractions, to best absorb its words.

The holiday of Shavuos commemorates one pivotal moment in Jewish history: the instance in which we, united as one nation, stood together in a life-altering experience and connected with G-d in an inimitable manner. No more, no less. When we sing Dayeinu during Maggid at the Pesach Seder we say, “Ilu Kirvanu Lifnei Har Sinai ViLo Nasan Lanu es HaTorah, Dayeinu!” even if You would have brought us to Har Sinai but not given us the Torah, it would have been enough.

The Shibolei HaLeket explains that Maamad Har Sinai was itself a life-changing event; just to witness it and to hear HaKadosh Baruch Hu speak to us would have been enough. The essence of Matan Torah was in the experience of it, and in the identity transformation that we underwent as a people. It was at Har Sinai that we agreed to accept the Torah, committed to the identity we have held for thousands of years. It was at that moment that we chose G-d, long after He had chosen us.

Many Meforshim dissect the Pasuk (Shmos 19:17), “VaYisyatzvu B’Sachtis HaHar,” and [Bnei Yisrael] stood by the foot of the mountain. Rashi quotes the Mechilta and the Gemara in Shabbos 88a, explaining that this means that Bnei Yisrael stood literally under the mountain, for the mountain was lifted and held above their heads, as though to say, “accept the Torah, or here will be your graves.” This is quite an alarming explanation – were Bnei Yisrael threatened, accepting the Torah only under duress??

In partial answer to her original question, Rebbetzin Kaminetzky noted that the grammar of this pasuk is reflexive, “VaYisyatzvu,” as if to say, “and [Bnei Yisrael] stood themselves under the mountain.” If we are to read the Pasuk this way, we may perhaps understand this moment as follows: Bnei Yisrael wanted to accept the Torah and wanted to be bound by it to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. To take that leap, they placed themselves in a forced-choice situation, essentially saying to Him, “We want this, and we don’t want a way out.” From that moment on, no matter what mistakes we made, no matter how broken we felt or became, we were bound with Hashem wholly and completely: Yisrael, Vi’Oraisa, Vi’Kudsha Brich Hu Chad Hu – Yisrael, and the Torah, and Hashem, are one (Zohar).

Irrespective of what came before, and regardless of what transpired after, there was something remarkable about Matan Torah that rendered it worth celebrating every year. Yes, we defied the very words G-d spoke to us just forty days later. Yes, Moshe shattered the first set of Luchos. And, as the Gemara (Bava Basra 14b) delineates, both sets of Luchos were placed in the Aron Kodesh. The broken shards of the Luchos were not meant to be discarded or swept under some figurative rug; they were a remnant of one of the most crucial, foundational moments of our collective history, a symbol of Hashem’s infinite and unconditional love for us.

Torah Judaism is not a scorecard on which Hashem tallies our Mitzvos and Aveiros, the bad at times outweighing or erasing the good. Judaism, and our relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, is a collection of moments and experiences that form a narrative of genuine connection, a story of striving and yearning and sometimes missing the mark. To tell someone’s story fully and candidly, it is imperative that we not leave out the details that might make us – or our audience – uncomfortable, to deny or negate or minimize the parts we’d rather leave out, to sugar coat the truth in the name of preserving dignity. While difficult at times to come to terms with, this is one of the foundational principles of most effective therapies, particularly DBT: we must accept all the parts of who we are and what we have experienced, and at the same time strive to live better.

Maamad Har Sinai is likened to a Chuppah, wedding ceremony, between us and G-d, with the translucent mountain held over Bnei Yisrael like the wedding canopy itself (Targum Yonasan, Shmos 19:17). Marriage is arguably full of moments of joy, pain, change, growth, and transition. Often the most powerful and impactful milestones in a relationship take place after the wedding, over the course of many months and years. Perhaps the couple experiences their first disagreement days, weeks, or months later. Perhaps they encounter challenges together that strengthen their relationship and further increase their love and devotion to each other. Yet, when a couple celebrates their anniversary, they commemorate the wedding day, that instance of pure, unadulterated joy that launched them into the rest of their lives before any of that even occurred.

The significance of the wedding day is paramount. Not only is a couple’s joy unhindered and pure, but there is also a profound sense of focus on each other and on the commitment being made. The bride and groom are free of all distraction; they do not work, their phones are handed off to friends or family, their every need is taken care of, and their sole focus is on that day, that relationship, that commitment. The ambiance of that singular, razor-sharp focus, free of distractions and negligible minutiae, is the exact feeling one gets in the desert.

As described by Rashi above, part of the reason the Torah was given in the desert was because it is in that place where we are free from distractions that we can best take in the Torah and what it represents: the commitment between Hashem and Klal Yisrael. Furthermore, the desert symbolizes that we all have equal claim to a relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and the very fact that we celebrate Zman Matan Toraseinu on the day that actually resulted in such a breach in our relationship implies that no breach, no matter the enormity of it, can invalidate that commitment or negate that relationship. In order to access it, we must be free of distractions, both from the outside world, but also from within ourselves, our self-doubt, our cynicism, our shame and our brokenness. Even the shattered shards within us do not get thrown away.

In reflecting on all of this, we must further note that Shavuos this year is juxtaposed with beginning Sefer Bamidbar. Among the many discrepancies between our Torah and the secular rendering of the Bible is the different names of each of the five books of Torah. Famously, Sefer Bamidbar is translated not as the Book of the Desert, but as the Book of Numbers. While true that Sefer Bamidbar begins with a counting of the Jewish people, it is interesting that a section of the Torah replete with stories foundational to our national identity and history is distilled down to just numbers. Firstly, there were other occasions prior to the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar when the Jewish people were counted. Furthermore, perhaps it also makes sense to question the Judaic name for this fourth of five books, Sefer Bamidbar. Did not the previous book and half (most of Sefer Shemos and all of Vayikra) also take place in the desert? Why now are we suddenly assigning these stories their geographical context?

Rashi (Bamidbar 1:1) explains that Hashem counted us frequently, including at the start of Bamidbar, because He loves us, and just as you might often count something that is precious to you, so Hashem counted us many times. Rashi then lists several of these occasions; Hashem counted us when we left Mitzrayim, after Chet Ha’Egel, when Hashem rested His Shechina on the people, and after the Mishkan was erected. The only thing these counts have in common is the subjects: Hashem the accountant, Bnei Yisrael His precious belongings. Hashem loved us when we left Mitzrayim, not yet committed to Him or His Torah, but destined to be. He loved us and still wanted to keep track of us even after we sinned, when He descended to be among us in forgiveness, and when we made a home for Him within ourselves and within the camp, reflecting back our mutual desire for connection by constructing the Mishkan.

It was in the desert that we received the Torah, and in the desert that we were first counted, because both of those things are reflective of the deep and profound connection and bond that was created and consecrated there. Yes, our subsequent behavior at times threatened that bond. Yes, our current behavior at times likely threatens that bond. And Shavuos is exactly about remembering that Torah observance and a connection with Hakadosh Baruch Hu is about connection despite, and at times even through, those broken, shattered pieces.

I heard this last idea from Leah Moskovich, associate principal at Central, quoting an essay by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sack. R’ Sacks notes that Shavuos is also called Chag Ha’Atzeres. In Hebrew, the word Atzeres means to pause, or stop. When we have a spiritual goal that we seek to achieve, such as deriving meaning from a specific holiday, it is integral to pause and reflect before diving in. In order to take in everything that Shavuos has to offer, we must pause, take a step back from the constant momentum of daily Jewish life, and reflect. In another essay on Parshas Bamidbar[1], R’ Sacks also explains that the significance of the Torah being given in the desert lies in the silence afforded by the desert, and in silence, the opportunity to reflect and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, our experiences, and our goals and values.

As we prepare to recommit to a life of Torah and Kirvas Elokim, we must look inward, and ask ourselves if we truly understand what this holiday and this relationship with G-d is all about. Do we believe in the vast reaches of G-d’s love for us, how precious we are to Him, how He counts us and recounts us because we are the most important thing in the world to Him? Do we understand that, by giving us the Torah in the Midbar, Hashem was teaching us how important our relationship is to Him, and how to rekindle it when we are lost?

This Shavuos, let us strive to recreate that wide, empty, vast space, free from distractions, and remember that the Torah and a relationship with Hashem is free and available to any and all who seek it. And, finally, let us take the opportunity this Shavuos to recognize that no matter how we may have broken or shattered our commitment to Hashem and to Torah along the way, those shards are part of our story, and by no means erase the efforts we can each make to rebuild and renew.

Chag Sameach!


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