Bemidbar: Are you ready to receive the Torah again


Numbers 1:1-4:20

Hosea 2:1-22

For 49 days, we have been waiting, counting, anticipating. Each night since the second seder, we have been counting the Omer, counting down, as one does in advance of a tremendously exciting event. Actually, we have counted up, from one to 49, anticipating the way in which we will rise to receive Torah once again. And when Shavuot comes tomorrow night, like children exuberant with the arrival of a long-awaited celebration, many of us will stay up all night studying Torah, hungry to take in its words and wisdom.

But are we ready to receive the Torah once again? Had all of us really stood at Sinai (as the tradition asserts, metaphorically), would we have said "yes" to God's gift? What would it take for us to be ready now?

To really rejoice in the giving of the Torah as a Divine gift to us requires a certain kind of spiritual preparation:

*Curiosity. To be ready to receive Torah as a presence in our lives requires us to be sincerely interested in our ancestors' wisdom, in the possibility of Divine wisdom embodied in Torah. Intellectual curiosity is not enough here. We need to be curious from the heart, open to what an ancient document may reveal to us about our own lives.

*Humility. To appreciate the Torah as a sacred source of wisdom requires that we be willing to consider the possibility that someone else has something to teach us about our lives. This is a hard one for us, raised in an age when autonomy and self-reliance are so highly valued. Yet if we are certain that we know it all, how could God ever teach us anything?

I am reminded of the famous midrash according to which God went around offering the Torah to different peoples, each of whom rejected the Torah based on one or another unacceptable commandment. Israel, alone among the nations, was willing to trust Divine wisdom and examine the details later.

By this theory, how many of us would accept the Torah today? How many of us are even temporarily willing to suspend our certainties in order to let in a new insight, a new perspective?

*Community. To rejoice in the zeman matan torateinu (the season of the gift of our Torah) one needs to be willing to see oneself as a part of a community. This, too, runs against the grain of our intensely individualistic society. But for us as Jews, this greatest of all gifts comes to us primarily in community. While today, each of us must accept and wrestle with Torah in our own ways, we must also be willing in some sense to be part of a community of God-wrestlers and students of Torah. For Torah was a gift given to us as a collective, and continually reinterpreted by our people's evolving wisdom. In a sense, Torah is only Torah if we stand in relationship with our people as we study it.

What, then, do we need to prepare us for Torah? According to a number of commentators, the very best preparation for Shavuot is Parashat Bemidbar, which we read this Shabbat.

Why is it so important that this be the piece of Torah we read just before Shavuot? One, it lacks the proclamation of curse and doom that was part of the previous parashah (Behukkotai), helping us to be ready for celebration. Secondly, it explains in great detail the way in which the Israelite community stands together. Thirdly, it invites reflection on the wilderness journey, that place of emptiness and uncertainty that opens us to what we do not know, and what Torah may have to give us.

For the commentators, the best preparation of all for Shavuot is Shabbat itself, particularly this year, as it falls just prior to the holiday. Remember the line in Dayeinu that we sang at the seder? "Ilu natan natan lanu et hashabbat — Dayeinu" (If God had only given us Shabbat– it would have been enough), followed by "Ilu natan lanu et hatorah" (If God had only given us the Torah).

To fully receive Torah, we need first the gifts of Shabbat: the gift of quiet time, of release from routine responsibilities, the chance to make space in our minds and souls to receive new wisdom, the joy of family and community.

May this Shabbat give us all its usual gifts, and may it help us prepare to receive our people's most treasured 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