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 this Sunday night is Shavuot, and 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.
At this point, nearly everyone is aware of the recent attacks by Hamas 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. At this point over 1000 rockets have been 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. (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 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.
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 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 most recent physical 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 in this most recent conflict? Then act by donating to Friends of the IDF or to any Jewish charity. Come participate in Temple Ner Simcha’s zoom observance of Shavuot. If nothing else, take some personal time for studying Torah on Sunday evening and renew your relationship with God and Judaism.
Many years ago I was with my friend and teacher Reb 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 through righteous acts of charity; and to learn and renew our wedding contract with God this Sunday 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.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
May 13th, 2021
2nd of Sivan, 5781
46th Day of the Omer