Bemidbar: On taking a deep spiritual inventory

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Numbers 1:1-4:20

I Samuel 20:18-42

It is the Shabbat immediately preceding Shavuot, the holiday celebrating God's gift of the Torah to the Jewish people. Jews the world over have been carefully counting each day since the second day of Pesach, waiting, preparing with almost breathless anticipation the giving of the Torah. We are almost there.

Why just now, at this climactic moment on the eve of Shavuot, do we read this particular portion, the first portion of the Book of Numbers? The choice of the Torah portion that appears in conjunction with a particular moment in the liturgical calendar is never coincidental. What did the rabbis want us to learn from Bemidbar, read just before Shavuot?

Most of the portion is taken up with a census of the Israelite community (that is, male leaders of each ancestral house), and then the geographical layout of the encampment, and then an equally painstaking review of the responsibilities of the priests and Levites. This is clearly a section about counting, a kind of tedious, mindful counting of people rather than days.

Perhaps this is the connection, just as we prepare to end our counting of the Omer days. This census count, like the Omer count, is slow, deliberate, mindful. Just as we have spent six weeks slowly, one day at a time, marking the passage of time until the climactic moment of Sinai, so too, this parashah slowly, carefully counts the persons who comprise the Israelite community. The same attentive, ordinary yet sacred quality of counting. Nothing dramatic or ecstatic. Just the careful marker: Each day is special and important; each Jew is special and important.

Among the traditional commentators, there is tremendous interest in the question of the connection between Parashat Bemidbar and the celebration of Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of our Torah. One commentator makes reference to an ancient midrash. "Through three things was the Torah given: fire, water, and wilderness."

In this interpretation, these three dimensions are not concrete aspects of the story of Israel's journey toward Torah, but symbols of what it takes for any Jew to really be ready to accept Torah as a gift in one's life. Fire — this is shalhevet Yah, the fire of God, passion that burns in the heart that yearns for God. Water — this is stillness of mind and clarity of thought, that allows one to recognize the wisdom of Torah. Wilderness — this is a letting go of ordinary desires that allows one to open to the spiritual dimension of life (see Itturei Torah, Vol. 5, Page 9).

I find this categorization a rather extraordinary little inventory of the essence of spiritual life. As we each prepare to celebrate Shavuot, imagining that we were there at Sinai as God personally gave divine wisdom to our people, we might each do well to consider those qualities of mind and spirit that would allow us to be truly ready to receive wisdom if it descended from the mountain straight to us. What would it take to help us to say "yes" to God's gift?

Fire: Are we capable of spiritual passion? Can we suspend the ordinary rules of decorum, even suspend our usual reliance on the rational side of life to consider a reality that is beyond the visible, the tangible, the quantifiable? Are Jewish celebrations just kid stuff, or can we celebrate Torah with abandon? Can we sing, dance, rejoice, thrill to be part of the Jewish people, recipients of the great repository of divine and human wisdom that is Torah?

Water: Do we have the ability to sit quietly, to reflect? Can we move beneath the momentary ebbs and flows of feelings and experiences to recognize real wisdom when we see it? Can we be quiet enough, still enough, to know when the Torah of our lives gives us something sacred, when God's voice reveals itself, when beneath the peculiarly ancient form of Torah's words, timeless wisdom appears?

Wilderness: Can we separate ourselves from time to time from the normal pursuits of life? Can we empty ourselves, clear the decks, empty the mental trash for long enough to let in a new insight, a radical call from another era, even, a call from God? Can we make enough space inside ourselves to let Torah in?

May this wilderness reading help us to be just a bit more ready to receive Torah as God offers it to us, and may we be able to rejoice in the gift.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at