Shabbat morning we begin reading from Bemidbar, the book of Numbers. This year, on Saturday night, we celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai with the start of Shavuot. This is a little mixed up, since in the chronology of the Torah, the book of Numbers begins after we have received the Torah at Sinai. Numbers recounts the march through the wilderness of Sinai to the Promised Land.
However, in the concurrent chronology of the holidays, our liturgical year, we are just receiving Torah now. Luckily, there is a principle in interpreting words of Torah that declares "there is no early or late in Torah." We have an opportunity to use the words of Bemidbar on Shabbat morning to help prepare us for the great gift we will receive the following Shabbat, however out of order that may seem.
The portion is very much about preparation, not for Mount Sinai, but for the journey after Mount Sinai. The opening section of the portion reads in a measured, studied way with an even, repetitive cadence, listing the names and numbers of the men being counted in the census. The camp and troops are organized in order to keep the people and the Tabernacle safe. It is the human attempt to impose some order onto an empty desert that lacks ordering elements, a vast wilderness with unpredictable obstacles ranging from lack of food and water to bands of enemies.
Liturgically, we have been doing our own ordering and enumerating these past seven weeks through counting the Omer. From Passover until Shavuot, we do our own census of days, counting and categorizing as we anticipate receiving the Torah.
For those who faltered in our counting, reading this first portion of Bemidbar gives us a taste of that kind of repetitive counting which is done to lay the ground work before receiving Torah.
The Israelites also understood this careful preparation as being about the centrality of Torah. The portion makes it clear that this military organization is not only to protect the people, but just as importantly to protect the Tabernacle — the home of the Ten Commandments and the place that God comes to dwell among the people.
The Levites are not counted in the initial census because their special task is the care and protection of the Tabernacle. Specific instructions are laid out for packing up each element of the Tabernacle and for transporting it through the wilderness. Each tribe is arranged in a circle surrounding the Tabernacle, putting Torah and God at the center of the camp.
The theophany the people experience at Sinai is so powerful, wild and unfathomable — as is God — that they cannot imagine what it will be or mean. They do their best to prepare for it. Moses instructs them in becoming ritually pure for three days before the theophany. They have also been building the Tabernacle before they come to Sinai, preparing a place for the Torah in their physical lives.
Counting the Omer is one of our spiritual preparations for receiving Torah each year. This portion can also be used in preparation for bringing Torah into our lives. It is an invitation to us, a moment to reflect on where in our lives we will place the wild, desert Torah we are about to receive. How will we protect it from everything in our lives that tries to infringe on it getting the honor, consideration and love that it deserves? How will we place Torah in the center, instead of on the outskirts of our lives?
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]