May 24 2013

Parshat B’ha’alotcha: “The Disgrace of Accommodation”

Slaying the Paschal Lamb

Slaying the Paschal Lamb

The Book of Bamidbar, which we began reading two weeks ago, is explicitly dated as beginning with “the first day of the second month after the exodus from the land of Egypt.” It is more than surprising that this week’s portion contains the commandment to offer up the Paschal lamb, “in the second year from their exodus from the land of Egypt, in the first month,” going backwards in time relative to the beginning of this book of the Torah! Indeed, this example is often cited as the proof-text that the Torah is not written in chronological order. Even though we accept this principle we still need to ask why the Torah moves events out of their chronological order. Why didn’t the Torah begin the Book of Bamidbar with this commandment of the first Paschal sacrifice in the wilderness?

Rashi, following the midrash, answers, “Why, indeed, does not the Book of Numbers open with this chapter? Because it is a disgrace for Israel. For in the forty years that the Jewish people were in the desert, this was the only Passover offering they brought.”

This explanation requires an explanation. The Torah limits the Paschal offering to “when you come into the land” and this instance is an exception to that rule. As long as they were in the wilderness they would be disbarred from offering the Passover lamb by Divine command. If so, what disgrace is there in the fact that this instance would be the only Paschal lamb in forty years? After all, God had ordained it so!

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson explains that the answer lies in the very next passage in the Torah describing the genesis of the mitzva of the “Second Passover:”

A group of Jews had found themselves in a state which, according to Torah law, absolved them from the duty to bring the Passover offering. Yet they refused to reconcile themselves to this. And their impassioned plea and demand, “Why should we be deprived?” swayed G-d to establish a new institution, the “Second Passover,” to enable them, and all who will find themselves in a similar situation in future generations, “to present God’s offering in its time, amongst the children of Israel.”

Therein lies the “disgrace” in those thirty-eight Passover-less years in the desert. Why did the Jewish people reconcile themselves to the Divine decree? Why did they accept this void in their relationship with God? Why did they not petition for an opportunity to serve Him in the full and optimum manner that the mitzvot of the Torah describe?

For more than nineteen-hundred years now, our Passovers have been incomplete. We eat the matzah and the bitter herbs, we drink the four cups of wine, we ask and answer the four questions, but the heart and essence of Passover, the Passover offering, is absent from our Seder table. For God has hidden His face from us, has removed the Holy Temple, the seat of His manifest presence on physical earth, from our midst.

The lesson of the “displaced” ninth chapter of Numbers is clear: God desires and expects of us that we refuse to reconcile ourselves to the decree of galut and its diminution of His manifest involvement in our lives. He desires and expects of us that we storm the gates of heaven with the plea and demand: “Why should we be deprived?!”

Our disgrace is our accommodation with a mediocre, “second-rate,” compromised existence. Let us indeed storm the gates of heaven and demand nothing but the best! And may God, our compassionate parent, “give in” to our petulant petition.

May 10 2013

Why in the Desert? Parshat Bamidbar and Shavuot

Learning Torah All Night on Shavuot

Learning Torah All Night on Shavuot

This week’s Torah portion begins the book of Bamidbar (“In the Desert”) and reiterates the geographic context of the revelation of Torah, “And G-d spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai.” The Torah never conveys information gratuitously. What is significant about the desert as the context for the giving, and receiving, of the Torah?
The Midrash focuses on this issue and provides multiple answers:

The Torah was given to the people of Israel in the ownerless desert. For if it were given in the Land of Israel, the residents of the Land of Israel would say, “It is ours”; and if it were given in some other place, the residents of that place would say, “It is ours.” Therefore it was given in the wilderness, so that anyone who wishes to acquire it may acquire it. (Mechilta D’Rashbi)

Why was the Torah given in the desert? To teach us that if a person does not surrender himself to it like the desert, he cannot merit the words of Torah. And to teach us that just as the desert is endless, so is the Torah without end. (Pesikta D’Rav Kahana)

The Torah is not the monopoly of an intellectual elite, those with distinguished “yichus,” graduates of yeshivot, or any other subgroup of Jewish society. The Torah is the universal possession of the entire Jewish nation, no matter who we are or how we define ourselves. At the same time, we cannot fully actualize this heritage unless we are prepared to commit ourselves to a life-long engagement, full of discovery and self-discovery.

In light of these midrashim, the synchronicity of Parshat Bamidbar and Shavuot, celebrating the giving of the Torah, is no wonder. There can be no better time to renew our commitment to Torah than right now. I invite you to participate in the many opportunities available for learning in your community.