Bamidbar — Numbers 1:1-4:20
Each book of the Torah has its own unique flavor. Bereishit is the story of our patriarchs and matriarchs, their selection by God, and God’s promise that their descendants will inherit the Land of Israel. Shemot is the story of Israel’s servitude and subsequent redemption from Egypt and of the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. Vayikra is a compilation of the laws of the sacrifices and other matters pertaining to the priesthood. Devarim is a review of what has come before in preparation for the death of Moses and the entry of the people into the Promised Land.
The essence of Bamidbar is more difficult to define. The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the 19th-century rosh yeshiva of Volozhin) explained in his Torah commentary that Bamidbar is a transitional book marking the beginning of the transition from the supernatural and openly manifested presence of God during the years in the wilderness to the seemingly more natural and less explicit divine presence during life in the Land of Israel. One interesting thing about Bamidbar is that each year we begin reading it on the Shabbat before Shavuot. (Actually, to be technically correct, in a leap year when Rosh Hashana begins on Thursday, we read it two Shabbatot before Shavuot.)
It is this juxtaposition of the book of the Torah that marks the transition from the realm of miracles — the plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the sea, the manna, the well, and more — to the world of everyday life and the holiday that recalls the revelation at Sinai that reminds us of one of the Torah’s most important lessons. For one of the things that we cannot escape in Sefer Bamidbar is the realization that no human being is perfect.
The people remain fractious — complaining about food, complaining about water, complaining about Moses, still whining, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?” — and they panic at the report of the spies, causing God to condemn the generation of the Exodus to die in the wilderness. Korah and his company, already among the leaders of the people, rebel against Moses’ authority. Miriam and Aaron are punished for speaking out negatively about Moses. Even Moses himself loses his temper and defies God’s commandment. And as they approach the land of Israel, the people fall into idolatry and immorality — the second generation, the generation of the wilderness, is also flawed.
Every single person we meet in Bamidbar — from the ordinary Israelite to Moses himself — shows his imperfections. And yet, God does not abandon them. This is the connection between Bamidbar and Shavuot.
When we first read the account of matan Torah (the giving of Torah) in Shemot, we are still in the mythic world of miracles. Our ancestors have just been liberated from Egypt with signs and wonders and they have walked across the sea on dry land to come to the place where they will hear the actual voice of God. We might think that the Torah, too, belongs in that mythic world, that it is beyond the grasp of ordinary humans. So on Shavuot, which occurs just as we have begun to read Bamidbar, we read the account of matan Torah again, and come to realize that the Torah was given to ordinary human beings — flawed and imperfect — who live in the real world.
The gemara in Shabbat teaches: When Moses went up to heaven, the ministering angels said to God, “Master of the universe, what business does one born of woman have in our midst?” God replied, “He comes to receive the Torah.” They argue, “This precious thing — you are about to give it to mere flesh and blood?!?” And, with God’s approval, Moses answered them: “What need have you angels for the Torah? What is written in it: ‘You shall have no other gods’ — do you live among nations that worship idols? ‘You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord’ — are there business dealings among you that might cause you to swear a false oath? ‘Remember the Sabbath day’ — do you do the kind of work that requires you to rest? ‘Honor your father and your mother’ — do you have father or mother? ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal’ — is there rivalry among you, is the evil impulse within you?” And the angels conceded and sang, “O Lord, how glorious is your name in all the earth.”
The angels don’t need the Torah, for they are created without free will, without the ability to disobey God. We need the Torah — the magnificent gift we will celebrate this coming week on Shavuot — because, as Sefer Bamidbar reminds us, none of us is perfect.