The Sky's the Limit!
This year, as on most years, the weekly Torah reading on the Shabbat before Shavuot is Parshat Bamidbar. There is a simple connection between this Torah portion and Shavuot. It opens with the words, “G-d spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert.” Why does the Torah need to tell us where Moshe was? He and the people had been there for almost an entire year, since the giving of the Torah that was recorded all the way back in the Book of Exodus. By pointing out the place, the Torah is alluding to an important idea: The Torah was given in the Sinai Desert, and not in a populated area, to teach us that just as no one owns the desert, so too no one owns the Torah. It’s free. There’s no copyright holder. Whoever wants a copy can have one. G-d wants us to read it and learn it. What better message to hear at this time, just before the Festival that celebrates the giving of the Torah. And, by the way, it seems that G-d achieved His goal since it’s the best selling book in history!
There is, however, a deeper connection between Shavuot and Bamidbar. Bamidbar opens with G-d instructing Moshe and Aharon to count the Jewish People. Why did they need to be counted now? They had been counted just seven months earlier, so what special event took place now that necessitated a new count? The answer appears in the next chapter of the Torah portion. While counting the people Moshe and Aharon also clarified the tribal lineage of each and every person. When the count was concluded, G-d allocated a new position for each of the tribes, and each person now knew where to go.
There were four large camps in all, each made up of three tribes, and they camped around the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the four directions of the compass. The tribe of Levi, which included the priests (Kohanim), encamped a little closer to the Mishkan.
So G-d counted the people in order to rearrange the camp. But why did it need to be rearranged in the first place? To answer this we now need to go back to Shavuot. The experience of standing at the foot of Mount Sinai and hearing G-d speak was an awesome event beyond our comprehension. The Torah tells us what happened: “There was thunder and lightening and a thick cloud over the mountain, and an extremely loud shofar blast… All of Mount Sinai was smoking because G-d had descended upon it in fire” (Ex. 19:16-17). Then the voice [of G-d came] from within the darkness and the mountain was burning with fire” (Deut. 5:20). If that was not enough, the Midrash tells us that G-d did not appear alone. He descended on the mountain with His hosts of ministering angels. There were thousands of them and they were arranged in four camps, with each angel having a special position and role.
When the Jewish people saw this vision of G-d surrounded by Heavenly legions of angels, they desired to be similarly arranged. They longed to be G-d’s “legions on earth,” an organized, united community, with each individual and tribe having a special position and role. They realized that this would bring them even closer to G-d and allow them to fulfill their calling: to be a light unto the nations and reveal G-d’s ways to the world. The people never forgot the experience. They held on to their wish, and eventually G-d granted it. Almost a year after the giving of the Torah, one month after the Mishkan was erected, G-d instructed the people to form four camps, just like the angels.
It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the significance of the four-camp arrangement and the special qualities and roles of each of the tribes. Suffice it to say that every person and tribe was needed, and had a unique contribution to make. And it had to be made together as a united people.
So now we see that Parshat Bamidbar completes the story of Shavuot. We see that if a person really desires something, G-d fulfills His will. In this very special way, one might indeed say, “The sky is the limit”!
- Ohr Somayach graduate Rabbi Yonasan Arenias has just published his first sefer: Journey of Faith – A Comprehensive Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar, available at Eichlers and other good Jewish book stores near you, or call 1-347-446-5884 to order a copy.