A DOUBLE TORAH WEEK – Shavuot & B’haalot’kha – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week we will read Numbers chapters 8-12. Among other things this section partly answers a question that came up last week about the men of Levi. Namely, since they served in the Tabernacle from age 30 to 50 and did no military service, what did they do for their first 30 years? Here we will read that their service actually began at 25. So the Midrash explains that they spent 5 years learning, and then assumed their duties at age 30. Other subjects treated next Shabat include the original Menorah, the law concerning those who were unable to keep the Passover in Nisan and had to do so a month later (called “Pesach Sheyni”– the Second Passover), some bitter grumbling about the hardships of their trek through the desert and even a movement to return to Egypt, rules for making the silver trumpets for vital signaling, and Miriam’s punishment for criticizing Moses’ wife. Quite a colorful section.
But first comes the festival of Shavuot – or Sh’vues if you prefer – which starts Tuesday evening. Of the three pilgrim festivals this is the shortest, but like the others it combines religious and agricultural traditions. Called “Yom haBikkurim” – the day of the first fruits – this was the day when our ancestors brought the first yield of the spring harvest to Jerusalem as a sacred offering. Some beautiful descriptions of this custom can be found in our literature. That’s the agricultural memory.
The religious memory is older and stronger. Unlike the other festivals, this holiday does not begin on the 15th of the month but on the 6th. Coming just 50 days after the anniversary of the Exodus which we celebrated on Passover, it marks the day our ancestors gathered at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Seven short weeks from slavery to national identity. We can well call the Torah our Constitution.
In the 20th chapter of Exodus we read the story of Moses climbing the mountain and getting instructions on how to prepare the people for this one-time event. We must register the details. The Israelites arrive at Sinai at the beginning of the third month, namely Sivan. A couple of days to set up their camp, then on the 3rd day Moses gets his instructions: 1- he tells the people the conditions, and they agree. 2-they have two more days, the 4th and 5th of Sivan, to prepare to hear the voice of G-d; these preparations include washing their clothes, and separating the sexes. 3-Then comes the event itself. On the morning of the 6th – this week it’s on Wednesday—thunder and lightning! Smoke envelops the mountain. The sound of the Shofar is very powerful. “Moses speaks, and G-d answers him out loud.”
So we will stand and re-read the Ten Commandments. Their name in Hebrew is not Ten Commandments, or “aseres ha-mitzvos”, by the way, it is “aseres ha-dibros” – literally the Ten Statements. Yes, the same ten statements of right and wrong that still speak to us and our neighbors in public buildings from the Supreme Court to local city halls, even if some people now consider them politically incorrect. When they were first spoken, we learn that our ancestors heard the first two directly from the Divine Voice, and then asked Moses to tell them the rest, out of fear of contact with a supernatural force they could not see.
The words remain sacred. The location does not. Sinai is just a mountain, not even a very high one, and was never made into a shrine. A telling line in this reading comes in the 21st verse of chapter 20: “Every place where I cause My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.” Read this Torah wherever you are, in the synagogue or at home, in a bus or on a beach. Blessing is there.