By Clifford S. Fishman
Shabbat Bemidbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20.
This Shabbat we begin our annual reading of Sefer Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers or, in Hebrew, “in the wilderness.” In the biblical narrative, Sefer Bemidbar bridges the gap between Sinai and the Israelites’ arrival at the Jordan 40 years later. It begins with a census and contains a few significant events and a number of mitzvot for the Israelites to follow. But it actually tells us very little about what happened during those years, or about our ancestors’ daily lives. This Torah portion is always read on the Shabbat before Shavuot, which begins at sunset on May 28.
Shavuot is the holiday celebrating God’s giving, and our ancestors’ receiving, the Torah — or at least the Ten Commandments. The confluence of Bemidbar and Shavuot reminds us that the law was given bemidbar, in a wilderness. And that is appropriate, because a society — or an individual — has the greatest need for standards and laws when wandering in a wilderness, whether physical, moral or spiritual.
We are proud that God’s gift at Sinai, this fundamental law of a just society, was given to our ancestors. And we are taught that this gift was not only to them, but to us — that we were with that generation at Sinai. This imposes on us a special obligation: To live up to that gift; to try to inspire others by our example. As Abraham Joshua Heschel put it in “God in Search of Man”:
“Revelation’s purpose is not to substitute for but to extend our understanding. [We are obliged] to look for ways of translating Biblical commandments into programs required by our own conditions. The full meaning of the words was not disclosed once and for all. … The word was given once; the effort to understand it must go on forever.”
Assuming, that is, that it happened at all.
Many people, including many observant Jews, doubt that the biblical narrative of the giving of the Ten Commandments is literally true. Heschel himself did not believe that. He believed that something happened at Sinai that changed the world forever, and that the Torah itself is a midrash, an interpretation, an attempt by our ancestors to understand and come to grips with that world-changing event.
That’s what I believe or, to put it more accurately, what I want to believe; what I try to believe. To me, Shavuot renews and reinvigorates my effort to believe that something world-changing actually occurred at Sinai. But not just that. Shavuot also renews and reinvigorates my desire to try to live my life as if I believed, even when the doubts outweigh the belief. Those of us who struggle with doubts must make that effort, because otherwise we might lose ourselves in a wilderness without hope or direction or standards to live by.
So this Shabbat, when we read about the census of the Israelites, let us try to imagine that we were counted as present alongside our ancestors. And next week on Shavuot, let’s try to do as our sages instructed. Let us try to imagine that we are standing at Sinai with our ancestors. And let us remember Heschel’s admonition:
“The word was given once; the effort to understand it — and apply its teachings in our own lives and society — must go on forever.”
Clifford Fishman, a long-time member of Tikvat Israel Congregation, is a professor emeritus of law at Catholic University.