Written by Rebbetzin Elisa Gurevitch, Chabad at UCLA
The holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah, is always preceded by the Torah portion of Bamidbar (the first chapters of Numbers) — “In the desert.” The reason for this is manifold. Just as the desert is a barren, ownerless place, so too the Torah and its values do not belong to any particular setting, cultural milieu, time period, or civilization, but rather are accessible and relevant to all Jews in all places and at all times.
The Tosafot to Megillah 31b brings another explanation. The Torah portion of Bamidbar is always read before Shavuot in order to interrupt between the harsh rebukes and curses listed in the previous parashah of Bechukotai at the end of the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus) and the holiday, not to ruin our festival mood! “You will become lost among the nations, and the land of your enemies will consume you,” says the Torah there, and with predictions as tough as these we could use a little break!
But how do the lengthy census and seemingly endless groupings, accountings and registers of the ancient Hebrews, which dominate the portion of Bamidbar, uplift us from the promises of doom?
We count things that are dear to us, objects which matter, possessions of value. G-d’s approach to the Jewish people is the same, says Rashi. “Because they are dear to Him, He counts them often.” This act of counting is not a mere expression of affection, it actually enables us to withstand the challenges of the exile, persecutions and anti-Semitic rages. How so? The Talmud records a law, codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 110:1) that Davar she’ba’minyan lo batel — “Anything that is accountable cannot be nullified.” It’s importance is beyond numbers, its value cannot be diluted or negated by admixtures or impurities.
So when G-d counts the Jewish people and records it in the Torah portion that we read right before the holiday commemorating the giving of the entire Torah at Mt. Sinai, it is a vivid reminder to us that every Jew counts, everyone is precious and beloved in G-d’s eyes, indispensable in the grand scheme of the Creation and the Divine master plan. It also gives us strength and ensures that we will not become lost and consumed among the nations, that each individual has a vital role to play in improving our world through the values of Torah.
This year, the Torah portion of Bamidbar leads immediately into the holiday of Shavuot, overlapping with Memorial Day weekend. Wherever you may be, in Westwood, back home, or in the Nevada desert, make sure to stand up and be counted! Hear the Ten Commandments read from the Torah on Sunday morning in synagogue, derive strength from the fact that Hashem cherishes and likes you, and take pride in your heritage — 3,327 years young!
May we all receive the Torah all over again with joy and be able to internalize it, Shabbat Shalom & Chag Sameach!
This article is part of Ha’Am’s Friday Taste of Torah column. Each week, a different UCLA community member will contribute some words of Jewish wisdom in preparation for Shabbat.