Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bamidbar’ co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
A Calendar Coincidence and a Strange Book
Two seemingly disparate phenomena, one technical and one philosophical, converge as we open the book of Bamidbar. Considered together, they provide powerful insight into the significance of this book of the Torah.
First, as a result of an apparent calendar coincidence, the reading of the book of Bamidbar begins each year in the synagogue on the Sabbaths directly before the festival of Shavuot.
Second, the book of Bamidbar is unique among the five books of the Torah as it is almost entirely limited to the description of the historical events and temporal commandments that mark the Israelites’ sojourn in the wilderness. Very few lasting mitzvot are recorded in this volume.
The calendar-created relationship between the opening of the book of Bamidbar and the festival of Shavuot is puzzling.
The book of Bamidbar opens with God’s detailed instructions to the Israelites preparatory to their departure from Sinai. Shavuot, on the other hand, marks the nation’s arrival at Sinai and the onset of Revelation, all of which occurs two years earlier.
Why do we read, each year, of our leaving Sinai specifically on the Sabbaths before we arrive?
Must we accept this reverse highlighting of the endpoints of the Sinaitic experience as a simple twist of calendar fate? If not, what possible lessons can be gleaned from this phenomenon?
More broadly, with the opening of the book of Bamidbar, the question could well be raised: What place does this book occupy within the eternal Torah text? Why are the time-bound details of Bamidbar significant enough to record for posterity? In what way is this text relevant for later generations?
The seemingly coincidental calendar connection between Parshat Bamidbar and the festival of Shavuot may not be coincidental at all, but, instead, a clear reminder of a fundamental truth: the most important moment of Revelation is the moment the Israelites leave.
The instant of the nation’s departure from Sinai determines the quality of all that has come before. If the Israelites leave the site of Revelation changed by the experience, carrying the Torah with them and within them, then the dramatic events of Sinai will have achieved their purpose. If, however, upon leaving the site of Revelation, the people leave Sinai behind, then those miraculous proceedings will have been little more than a divinely orchestrated “sound and light show,” impressing the observers in transient fashion.
As we open the book of Bamidbar each year on the Sabbaths before Shavuot, as we read of our departure before we arrive, we proclaim our understanding that the years spent at Sinai achieve their significance in retrospect.
What, however, is the verdict regarding the lasting impact of Revelation upon the people? Are the Israelites ultimately successful in their transition from Sinai?
The parshiot unfolding before us will reveal a mixed verdict concerning these questions.
On the one hand, the specific generation that witnesses Revelation fails its ultimate test. “Like a child running away from school,” the Israelites leave Sinai with alacrity, anxious to rid themselves of the obligations thrust upon them by divine law. Their immediate rebellion launches a series of cascading calamities culminating in the sin of the spies, the transgression that ultimately seals their fate in the wilderness. On a temporal level, the departure from Sinai clearly leads to failure.
On the other hand, in spite of the failure of the generation of the Exodus, Revelation does successfully launch the majestic story of the Jewish people. Transcending the tragedies of the moment, a nation is forged at the foot of Sinai: a people that will be bound, across time and place, by the commandments and values of Torah law. In a timeless, eternal dimension, the departure from Sinai leads to success.
The Torah’s interplay between the transitory and the eternal, so evident at the moment of the nation’s departure from Sinai, is the key to understanding the book of Bamidbar.
As noted above, this book appears to be the least directly practical of all five books of the Torah, outlining, as it does, events rooted in the past with little apparent application to our lives. The detailed preparations for the departure from Sinai, the departure itself, the ensuing rebellions and their tragic aftermath, the forty years of wandering in the wilderness, all seem specific to a long-gone time and place. Few lasting mitzvot emerge from the text, and the stories therein do not possess the timeless character of many of the classic tales found in the other four books of the Torah.
The Ramban describes the uniqueness of Bamidbar’s character in his introduction to the book:
This book [concerns itself] completely with the temporal commandments that were transmitted to them [the Israelites] during their sojourn in the wilderness and with the miracles that were afforded to them…. There are within this book few lasting mitzvot….
And yet, when we move beyond the time-bound specificity of the narrative, eternal lessons begin to emerge.
Properly understood, the journey from Sinai represents not only the passage of those present at that historic moment, but the launching of our national journey across the ages. God’s instructions to the nation prior to their departure from Sinai reveal the human elements He considers critical not only to the success of that generation’s mission but to the success of the entire Jewish enterprise. Even the tragic shortcomings of our ancestors are powerfully relevant, revealing inherent flaws that threaten our own personal and communal achievements, as well. Finally, the Israelites’ forty years of wilderness wandering emerge as a critically formative period, cementing the relationship between God and His people and effecting essential changes in the developing nation’s psyche.
With the departure from Sinai serving as the turning point, the momentous event towards which the first half of the book of Bamidbar leads and from which the second half descends, this book of the Torah emerges as a blueprint for our journey across time. The ancient passage of our ancestors – bamidbar, in the wilderness – yields surprising lessons that continue to shape our lives.