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Posted By The Stash

This parasha should delight both the architect and the accountant. It is full of the statistics of the Israelites and their tribal arrangements as they marched through the Sinai Desert. The text enumerates the exact number of males above the age of twenty in each tribe who were capable of bearing arms. It also contains an equally meticulous enumeration of the Levites, beginning with the family of Moses and Aaron.

All this is very clear, neat numbers and a logical sequence. Yet our Sages ask: if “the number of the Israelites is like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted”, as our haftara states, then why does G-d count? Indeed, we know that directly counting Jews is considered to bring the evil eye. That is why the Israelite census was indirectly conducted through the bringing of the half-shekel. That’s why we never count the number of a minyan directly. Perhaps the government’s elimination of the long-form census is a “step” in that direction!?

The Chiddushei Ha’Rim gives a fascinating answer to the Sages’ query: “G-d commanded that the Israelites be counted because there is a law that ‘once someone is counted in a group of at least 10, they cannot be annulled by even 1,000.’ “ What did the commentator mean? Listen to his conclusion: “G-d did not want the Israelites to be assimilated among the nations of the world, and therefore they were counted.”

There is a vital insight here. All of the censuses of this parasha take place in the context of a carefully constructed campsite centered on the Tabernacle. Every tribe was equidistant from the Tabernacle. All could literally see the Presence of G-d as a fire by night or a pillar by day, hovering over the center of the camp. In this context, surrounded by the appurtenances of their religion and their co-religionists, it was easy to count the Israelites and for them to readily see the tribes among whom they were counted.

This is the Chiddushei HaRim’s point. When they were counted at a young age, the young men of our parasha were so surrounded by their religion, culture, and ethnicity that they readily affirmed their Israelite identity. But, as Israelites became Judeans, and Judeans went into many exiles and became Jews, identity became far more fragmented than the systematic and organized identity mirrored by the Israelite desert encampment our parasha describes. The Temple, whose spiritual predecessor the Tabernacle was situated at the center of the camp—the focus of Jewish life—was destroyed forever in 70 CE. Rabbinic Judaism thus had to cope with the memories of a destroyed cultic center that would be restored at a distant messianic date. But even more changes took place over succeeding centuries. The greatest of these began with the Enlightenment, as religion lost its influence. Now, Jewish identity became far more challenging. In our parasha, Israelites were counted and no one would even have been displeased about their group membership. But with religion’s fall and the rise of the secular nation state, Jews had choices. Some could, and did, chose not to be counted as Jews. Indeed, as our commentator observed, they could choose to disappear.

The challenge of Jewish existence is to count—to find identity within Judaism when there are no strict lines of community. The “campsite” of Jewish ethnicity no longer forms the neat boundary it did in the desert. We are no longer in splendid isolation. Our challenge is simple and profound: to continue to seek Sinai and to define our identity in a polyglot world. We shall prove equal to it through study, observation, and intelligent dialogue. To paraphrase our Sages, we don’t have to figure out all the answers, but we must engage in the search.

Posted By The Stash

Once again we come to the Tochecha, the awful list of curses that will befall our people if they "choose not to listen to the Lord your G-d." Of course, these curses are preceded by some of the most beautiful blessings in the Torah, and—even more significantly—are followed by G-d’s promise never to abandon the Jewish people no matter how great their sinfulness. Therefore, we are compelled to ask the difficult question: what is the purpose of these curses? Why are these terrible threats written in our holy book? 

Before we answer, let us consider the minhag (custom) that no one actually has an aliyah for this part of the Torah reading.  The tochecha is read in an undertone. Surely, minhag suggests that we wish to avoid any proximity to these words in both the spiritual or physical sense. Rightly so, for the words are indeed horrible. But the fact that these words are so awful that no one even stands next to the holy Sefer Torah when they are read only underscores the question we asked: what is their purpose? If, in the end, G-d will never abandon us, why must we be threatened?

Rashi’s comment on a strange word leads to a powerful insight. Just before the actual curses begin, G-d explains the conditions that will invoke their appearance. “If you will come to me b’keri, I will come to you b’keri.” Rashi explains “keri´ as “casualness. That is, if you approach G-d too casually, then G-d will deal with you the same way. Judaism is based on obligation, on following mitzvot. The mitzva system defines daily life and prescribes and proscribes various activities within various time frames. The mitzva conscious Intelligent Jew is always aware of the myriad obligations incumbent upon them. Indeed, Judaism is a lifestyle. That is wonderful, but we can become habituated. The commandments may lose their zest, we may even skip a few prayers in the service, or even skip praying for a while.

Or, perhaps even worse, we may take our close relationship with G-d for granted. Remember that we are “married” to G-d spiritually, and in any lengthy relationship, there are ups and downs. Married people know that if affection is limited to birthdays, anniversaries, or Mothers' and Fathers' Day, then there is a relationship problem. How many times are people told to “put that spark back in your marriage and….” Well, that also applies to G-d. When we forget that our close relationship with G-d is miraculous, and we assume that G-d is “like a pop machine”—put in a prayer and G-d will answer, then we have a relationship issue. We cannot get casual with G-d.

When a relationship slips, one partner will usually take the other to task, often harshly complaining about how “things used to be” and “how our lives together are going to hell in a handcart” or the equivalent. But, if the relationship really matters, as in a good marriage or the Israel-G-d relationship, this act of heartfelt rebuke will have a catalytic effect. When one partner sees how upset their partner, whom they still love, is, they will repent and begin to take steps to raise the level of the relationship to what it once was. The partner knows that even when their angry spouse shouts: “if you don’t stop …..I will divorce you”, they don’t mean it. Similarly, the tochecha are G-d’s angry words, immediately followed by words of reassurance. They come only to stir us to “chadesh yameinu k’kedem” – to renew our relationship to what it was. “

It is always good to recommit to and reinvigorate a treasured relationship. Neither we nor G-d want to be taken for granted and treated casually. The Torah was given at Shavuot to an excited people who swore to follow it. We need to reduce our spiritual distance from Sinai by choosing some mitzvot we especially love and practice them with vigour. Telling your loved ones how special they are to you isn’t such a bad idea either—and it’s also a mitzva!

Posted By The Stash

In last week’s parasha sheet, we learned that our Sages viewed freedom as a duality: physical freedom had to be accompanied by law. People free to do what they want are not free. Indeed, Yiddish has a phrase for people who lounge about all day seemingly with nothing to do—zey gayin arim hefker. This is a very interesting expression. “Hefker” means “ownerless” (literally “without a master”) in Biblical Hebrew. People who have no rules to follow, who have no daily rhythm are “ownerless” in the sense that they have no one telling them what to do.

At first blush this sounds shocking. What of free will? What of people’s right to determine if they want to lounge around or not? Shouldn’t squeegee kids get to wash cars all day and demand payment if that’s what they want to do with their lives? No, says Torah. Even raising these questions underscores the linguistic point: the hefker person acts that way because they cannot be their own master/mistress. Indeed the Torah believes that people actually need a Deity to tell them what to do.

How to we know this? Consider the final verse from this week’s parasha: “For the Israelites are my servants [avadim] since I took them out of the Land of Egypt, I am the L-rd your G-d.” You will notice that the word avadim means either slave or servant. Which is the correct meaning? The Talmud replies: look at the context—people are servants to G-d, but slaves to human masters. In either case though, the eved is told what to do, and to some extent—depending on the master—they give up their free will to follow the directives of their master.

Simply put, the Ten Commandments begins with the words “I am the L-rd your G-d who took you out of the Land of Egypt from the house of slavery” to inextricably link the physical and spiritual nature of the Israelites that required surrender of some of their free will to follow the rules of G-d. Our philosophers called this “the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven” (a phrase found a number of times in the Siddur) and our Sages opined: “Who is strong—the person that conquers their will” and “do G-d’s will as if it were yours.”

And that is why Shavuot’s occurrence is not limited to a single calendar day. It can occur on the 6th or 7th of Sivan. The acquisition of Torah, and the discipline it demands, requires far more than a mere day to acquire.

But here is where the approach of the Intelligent Jew comes forward. The Intelligent Jew will ask: must I blindly extinguish my will to follow what others have told me G-d wants, or must I be an active and willing and lifelong partner in the quest for understanding my religion? Do I not have to read the Torah, and its commentaries, and the works of the great scholars of our religion of whatever denomination, to ensure that I know what I believe in?? Intelligent Judaism is not an absolutist religion—it has some core beliefs, but considerable room for personal choice. G-d may be our “master”, but G-d needs intelligent partners. Being an intelligently observant exemplar in our world today requires thought and self-awareness. Let us pray that as the calendar turns us closer to the anniversary of Sinai, we can truly (as the bracha we say when we receive an aliya proclaims) “be given the Torah” afresh daily.

Posted By The Stash

Our parasha’s account of Shavuot is easy to miss. “And you shall count from the day after the day of rest [which the Pharisees successfully proved was the second day of Pesach] on the day you bring an omer [unit of measure] of the wave offering, there shall be 7 full weeks. And from that day you shall fifty days… And on that day you shall proclaim a holy convocation….” (Bamidbar 23:15,16,21) Strange. No month, no day, just the formulary statement “a holy convocation” [mikra kodesh] to tell us that it is one of the festivals of the Torah. Every other festival has a clearly written date. Why not Shavuot?

The quick and easy sociological/anthropological answer would be that Shavuot was an agricultural festival that only morphed into its present state of “z’man matan torateinu”—“the time when we received the Torah”—after the Temple’s destruction. That may well be true, but it is an incomplete answer.

Our Sages were wise enough to observe that Sefirat Ha’Omer, the counting of the 49 days between the second day of Pesach and Shavuot, were far more than an agricultural link between the planting and harvesting the land’s first fruits (recall that Shavuot’s other name is Chag HaBikkurim, the Festival of First Fruits). Even though they lived in an agricultural society, the Sages perceived another level of narrative in the Torah. They argued, in strikingly worded midrashim, that sefirat ha’omer link Pesach and Shavuot in another very important sense: they both speak of freedom.

At first glance this does not make sense. During every Pesach Kiddush we call these days “z’man cherutaynu”, the season of obtaining our freedom. What does Shavuot have to do with freedom? A careful examination of the Torah’s account of the revelation at Sinai indicates that the Israelites received the Torah on one of the possible days on which Shavuot can occur. This explains why we also call this festival “z’man matan torataynu”—the commemoration of receiving our Torah. For our Sages, there could be no freedom without law, without Torah. They argued that when the Israelites were freed from slavery on Pesach, they only became physically free. On Shavuot, when they received the Torah, they became fully liberated. Indeed our commentators found a hint of this concept in the description of Moses descending Sinai with the tablets in his hand. The Torah says: “And the letters were the writing of G-d, engraved [charut] on the tablets.” The commentary says: “do not read the word as “charut” (engraved) but as “cherut”, meaning “freedom” (but written with the same letters. In other words—law brings freedom.

But there is much more to be said here, and we will continue with this theme next week, when we will finally begin to unravel the mystery of the “datelessness” of Shavuot. This apparent anomaly is actually rooted in the “timelessness” of Torah.




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