“Numbers” may be the name by which the fourth of the Five Books of Moses is commonly called, but in the Hebrew original it is known as Bamidbar, or “In the Wilderness.” It is interesting to note that this parsha is always read immediately before the festival of Shavuot, “the season of the giving of the Torah.” What is the connection?
The Sages teach that it is not enough for G-d to give us the Torah, we have to be ready to receive the Torah. What makes us worthy recipients of this most precious and infinite gift from G-d? This is where the “wilderness” idea comes in. A wilderness is a no-man’s land. It is ownerless and barren. Just as a desert is empty and desolate, so does a student of Torah need to know that he is but an “empty vessel.” Humility is a vital prerequisite if we are to successfully absorb divine wisdom.
When the day of Pentecost (that is, Shavuot) arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?”
-Acts 2:1-8 (ESV)
I’m not sure what I’m supposed to write about. On my “morning meditation” for Fridays, I usually create a commentary on the weekly Torah Portion, which this week is the beginning of Numbers. However, we are also on the cusp of Shavuot and the two cannot be neatly divided and separated. In my quote from Rabbi Goldman, he even asks about the connection between the two. Fortunately, he also gives us an answer.
However, for those of us who are disciples of the Jewish Messiah and devoted to Jesus Christ, there is an added dimension to offering the Torah to the wilderness within all our souls. There is the giving of the Spirit and God. This isn’t to say that Jews do not have access to the Spirit of God. Far from it. But in accepting the Messiah into our hearts and recognizing that it is Jesus who is Lord of life and firstborn from the dead, we enter into a covenant that not only preserves us in the present world, but one that will endure beyond the next and into all eternity, even as Heaven and Earth pass away (Matthew 5:18).
But we are still here and we exist in what we call “now,” which is approaching Shabbat and a day later, Shavuot. We look to the past, to Mount Sinai and the Torah and to that room in Jerusalem and the Apostles being filled with the Spirit, and we rejoice. But it’s not all about the past.
Unlike Passover or Sukkos, or even the minor Rabbinic holiday of Purim, Shavuos comes with no special observances, no unique Mitzvos to be performed on that day. The “only” thing that sets Shavuos apart is that it is the day when G-d gave the Torah, His most precious gift, to the Jewish people.
Each year, we don’t merely revisit or even relive that experience. Kabbalistic sources teach that the unique spiritual powers of each holiday return to this world every year on that same day. On Shavuos, we have a special power to take our portion in Torah, each and every year.
Every year, many of us skip out on this unique opportunity. We deny ourselves the closeness to G-d which is within our grasp. And there is a fascinating Medrash concerning the giving of the Torah, which hints that this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon.
-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Rabbi Menken doesn’t say this explicitly, but the reason we study Torah, observe the festivals, and remember the holy acts in the lives of the Apostles is to not just relive them today, but to experience them as new, fresh, living events that are happening to us for the very first time. Many Christians speak of a need for renewal in the church and yet Judaism has built into its calendar multiple times of renewing each and every year. Jews and Christians are at such a time now. Before our awareness of God, we existed as a wilderness, empty and barren in our soul. This is especially tragic for Jews since they are members of the Covenant and a chosen people, even if they acknowledge God not at all. We who are Gentiles, if we are without God, we are as Paul described us; far off and without hope (Ephesians 2:12).
The Jews were joined with God at the foot of Sinai in the desert, where the Torah was given to them. We who were once far off were offered the opportunity to also draw close to God at the foot of the cross and in that room in Jerusalem, when we were washed by blood and filled with Spirit. We were made alive and spiritually aware of God through Christ.
Rabbi Goldman concludes his commentary on Numbers and Shavuot by saying:
May we receive the Torah with joy and earnestness so that this important festival will be both memorable and meaningful.
Paul says in Ephesians 12:22 (ESV):
And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Open your minds, your hearts, and your spirits to God. Today we become new again.
A Happy Shavuos and Good Shabbos.
(Shavuot begins Saturday evening right when Shabbat ends, so my next “morning meditation” will be posted online Monday morning. Blessings).