Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Bamidbar 5769- Counting and Shavuot

In this weeks Parsha we see a census being taken- first the twelve tribes (in this case the Tribe of Yosef is counted as two entities- Ephraim and Menasseh) and then the Levi’im (twice- once using the age of one month, followed by a second count of those between the ages of 30-50 i.e. those who actually served to perform the Avodah).  What is interesting is the way the count is given- first it emphasises the fact that everyone was counted by name, according to their father’s house; then it gives the number for the tribe (or family division in the case of the Levi’im) followed by the total.  Now, adding numbers up is hardly a difficult task- it is merely basic arithmetic and reallly not that important information to give us.  Since the Torah does give us the total, it must be trying to emphasises something else.

Looking at the manner in which the census was taken, we can see an emphasis not just on the individual, but on his connection to the whole.  We don’t count the person as a disconnected individual, but as a member of a specific family unit with ties to others.  Whether or not his parents and direct family are alive, he is part of the greater whole- he belongs to the house of his father/grandfather/great grandfather etc.  From there, the connection of the family unit to the whole is emphasised- the family unit is part of a larger group- the tribe which in turn is just part of the entire nation.  Counted in this way each individual is important, but each is also connected to the whole.  As it is stated at the start of every chapter of the Talmud, Masechta Avos (Pirkei Avos)- “All of Israel is responsible one for another.”  Individuals are important- and we as individuals areresponsible for each other since together we make up a whole.  Pirkei Avos continues “And every member of Bnei Israel merits a place in the world to come”- and a commentary on that section states that the person who cuts themselves off from the community, who seperates himself from the rest of Bnei Israel, loses this guarantee and has to merit a place on his own since he no longer gains the merit from the entire nation!

So what does this have to do with Shavuot?  A frequent discussion of Shavuot is its lack of symbols.  Of the three shalosh regalim it is the only way without visible external symbols.  Pesach has matzah, maror, the seder- visible tangible things and actions; Sukkot has the Sukkah, lulav and etrog as visible, tangible things and actions- yet Shavuot has nothing.  We have some customs- to only eat milk (since the Jews did not have the laws of shechita before Matan Torah, they had to eat milk afterwards until they had time to slaughter the animals according to halachah), the first fruits were brought (Bikkurim) on Shavuos- but that is a consequence of its time in the year (after the first harvests) rather than symbolic of the holiday; and then one of the best known customs- tikun leil shavuot- staying up and studying Torah the whole night on Shavuot in memory of how the Jew overslept the morning of the receiving the Torah.

So, how does our census tie into Shavuot?  What does an emphasis on the importance of the individual and his connection to the greater whole have to do with Shavuot?  The midrash tells us that the soul of every member of klal Yisrael- past, present and future- was present at Matan Torah.  That everyone accepted the Torah for themselves, every member of klal Yisrael said “Na’aseh v’nishmah”.  Thus every individual is important when it comes to Shavuot, every individual needs to celebrate their personal receiving of the Torah.  However, at the same time the whole nation stood together; the whole nation said as one “Na’aseh v’nishmah”.  The individual cannot separate himself from the whole- whether it is at Matan Torah, or when praying in a minyan!  Thus we see here what the symbol of Shavuot is- wy there is no need for anything else- the symbol of Shavuot is ourselves.  It is us- OUR acceptance of the Torah; OUR rememberance and reliving of the day we stood at the foot of Har Sinai; OUR acceptance of “Naaseh v’Nishmah”; and if the symbol is ourselves, our thoughts, our intentions then anything external just diminishes that and raws the focus away from what is ultimately important- that the Torah which Bnei Yisrael received on Har Sinai was for the WHOLE of Bnei Yisrael- One nation, one people- though each individual in it is important and prescious.

Yes, I know this should have been posted last week BEFORE we read parshas Bamidbar, so my apologies for the recent missing of posts.  Sometimes life gets very hectic…


May 25, 2009 - Posted by | Chagim, Parshah, Torah | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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