Bamidbar and Shavuot: The Wilderness & The Wedding
(There a number of hyperlinks in this week’s commentary to provide resources and allow you to fact check. This teaching is given in honor of the eight adults who are participating in their adult Bnei Mitzvah this Saturday afternoon, June 4.)
Many of our Sages from RaMBaM to Rebbe Schneerson recommended viewing current events through a filter of understanding the Torah portion and holidays. Given that we are approaching Shavuot this weekend, and that the Torah portion of the week is Bamidbar (“in the wilderness”, the opening chapters of the Book of Numbers), we can once again see the wisdom of this practice.
Nearly everyone is aware of the constant attacks by Hamas and terrorists against Israel. And most of us are aware of how the anti-Semites are coming out in every venue from media to the government to attack Israel for simply exercising its right of self-defense. In 2021, over 4000 rockets were launched against Israel, resulting in the damage to property, hundreds of injuries, and even deaths of Israeli citizens. Although attacked, Israel has been restrained its response: giving hours of advance notice to Gaza residents to evacuate areas that will be attacked. (https://www.cnn.com/2014/07/13/world/meast/mideast-tensions) Is there any other nation in the world that tells the citizens of another country they are at war with who does so much to try to preserve life…even of their enemies? Israel does this in spite of the reality that these Palestinian office buildings, apartments, and even hospitals are being used to house munitions that are the weapons being used to attack Israel. Despite the vitriolic hate against Israel spewed by leaders like Omar, Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, and others; including Arab leaders calling on their people to “behead Jews”; Israel has made it a point to do everything possible to keep Palestinian citizens safe. Israel has done this even with being stranded by the US State Dept. officials who attempt to draw a moral equivalency (https://apnews.com/article/united-nations-donald-trump-israel-middle-east-government-and-politics-c9a36ca4ae637cbdb1d524bdf6646ec7) between the attacks of Hamas and Israel’s right of self-defense; between the desire for death by Hamas and the desire for peace from Israel. We are truly “in the wilderness” of hate, seemingly without a solution.
That wilderness is international and has seeped deeply into American politics as well. Most recently, the anti-Semites of Tlaib, Omar, AOC, et al have proposed a new American Federal holiday which they would call “Nakba Day”, an Arabic term that means “catastrophe” or “tragedy”, that would be a federal holiday (God forbid) condemning the “catastrophe” of the creation of the modern State of Israel (https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.timesofisrael.com/rashida-tlaib-introduces-resolution-for-us-to-formally-recognize-palestinian-nakba/amp/). These blatant anti-Semites, who seem to wield un-checked influence in Washington, want a US holiday observed in all 50 states that condemns the very existence of Israel.
We are truly in a wilderness from which we need redemption.
But as always, the Torah and Jewish calendar provide understanding. The very name of this week’s portion is a preface to the Hebrews being in the wilderness after leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The essence of this portion is an accounting of all the Hebrews by tribe, and a promise that is continued throughout the Book of Numbers that the Hebrews will successfully traverse the wilderness and ultimately achieve peace in the Promised Land.
That promise is at the heart of the holiday of Shavuot. This is the holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah, and we spend the evening studying both the written and oral Torah as well as specific commentaries. The secret hidden in plain sight is that the Torah, Talmud, and mystical texts that we study on Shavuot are the ketubah, the wedding contract between God and Israel. God is our beloved, and we are His.
Most people don’t realize the truth of this holiday being a spiritual wedding, and all too often non-Orthodox synagogues study only the Book of Ruth on Erev Shavuot (partially because the traditional text of Tikkun Leil Shavuot is entirely in Hebrew, although our community has created a translation of much of the text for us to study that evening). But upon studying the entire text, it is clear that this is a wedding ceremony. The text not only includes passages about “love”, but actually ends with the Sheva Brachot, the 7 blessings recited at a wedding.
The lesson in this observance is clear. We are “contracted” with God in a special and unique relationship. This relationship contract is composed of the words of Torah, both written and oral. As long as we are faithful to that contract, God will always be there for us: protecting and loving us.
This is our answer in challenging times like these, when our very survival is being threatened…when it seems that we are lost in a wilderness. Shavuot is the reminder that we need to be true to our wedding vows with God, and in return God will keep us protected.
In Isaiah 1:27, repeated in our prayer book, it says “Zion will be redeemed through justice, and its inhabitants through righteousness.”. Earlier in the same book it tells us what that means. “Cease to do evil. Learn to do well. Seek justice. Relieve the oppressed. Judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” In other words, if we choose to learn Torah and Jewish teachings; act righteously and compassionately; and attach ourselves to a Jewish community (taking care of the orphan, widow, and those less fortunate)…then the people of Israel and the inhabitants of the land will be redeemed.
The pathway through the painful wilderness of these challenging times is clear: we each need to rededicate ourselves to doing more good and to learning more of God’s guidance as found in our texts. This is the purpose of Shavuot: to renew our wedding contract with God, and to reap the rewards of safety and love in that partnership.
So instead of just being upset by the attacks against Israel and by the vitriol of the anti-Semites, we all need to take some time to renew our commitment to God, Judaism, Israel, and our people through study and action. Do you want to make a difference and strengthen Israel? Then act by donating to Friends of the IDF or to any Jewish charity. Support businesses that support Israel, and do not do business with any other business that is divesting itself from the economics of the Holy Land. Participate in our Temple’s observance of Shavuot on Sunday evening. If nothing else, take some personal time for studying Torah thus weekend and renew your relationship with God and Judaism.
Many years ago I was with my friend and teacher Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum from Jerusalem at a talk he was giving on meditation. After the talk he was asked how meditation can help with the war in Israel (this was during the second intifada). He replied, “Most people do not understand this is not a war between Jew and Arab, but between good and evil. And there is good and evil on both sides. It is being fought in the celestial realms, and we are just acting it out. So the best thing you can do is study, sing, and dance with other Jews. This will birth “angels of peace” who will fight that war in heaven, and then we will have peace on earth.”
I know for many people this seems a bit too “airy-fairy” or “spiritual”…but what if he’s right? What if what we really need to do is study, pray, sing, and dance together as Jews, like we do at a wedding, and this will ultimately take us through the wilderness of hate and bring peace in the world?
May we all choose to act righteously; to support Israel and our beloved IDF soldiers and Jewish communities around the world through righteous acts of charity; to reject and fight for the removal from political office of all anti-Semites like Tlaib and Omar both nationally and locally; and to learn and renew our wedding contract with God on Shavuot evening, and always. May we all be guided by the wisdom of Shavuot into a place of safety and peace; and May the One who ordains peace in the Universe bring peace upon us and all Israel. And together, may we say amen.
Kavannah: Take this week and birth some angels for peace by studying Torah, sacred texts, or singing and/or joyously dancing. It is ideal if you can do these things with a friend or in a community, but even if you just sing, dance, or study privately, you will be birthing angels.
This teaching is in honor of Orlando, Mark, Shari, Rita, Fiona, Abby, Debbie, and Sue Ann. Mazal Tov on this ritual of a Bar/Bat Mitzvah and your commitments to God and Judaism. May you all go from strength to greater strength, and always be a shining light of example to us all of commitment to God, Judaism, and the Jewish community.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
June 2nd, 2022
3rd of Sivan, 5782
47th Day of the Omer