Bamidbar – Numbers 1:1-4:20
The book of Bamidbar (‘the desert), listed in English Bibles as ‘Numbers’, is the fourth book of the Torah. As we begin to read it this Shabbat, we find some curious facts. Several events in this book should never have happened, most notably the forty years in the desert. That was not the original plan! After Sinai, the next stop for the Children of Israel, just a handful of days later, was intended to be the Promised Land. Yet we learn a timeless lesson: the ‘unplanned’ delay became a ‘school’ for the children of Israel. Many of the lessons they learned ‘b’midbar’ – in the desert – were crucial to their formation as a holy nation.
Sound familiar? We all experience delays in life, many of which we find irritating and troubling. We’re in a hurry to ‘get on with it.’ However, like the children of Israel every delay is a treasure field of opportunity for spiritual, emotional and mental growth.
What additional significance was there for the Hebrews prolonged years in the desert? Apart from the practical aspects of being prepared to conquer the land, there seems to be a greater design behind God’s decision to extend their sojourn in the desert. Is there something special about the desert that is unique to the process they would undergo?
In the desert, man is exposed, often without shelter. Hot days, cold nights, open spaces and no reliable sources of food or water create a situation of unparalleled vulnerability. It was in this atmosphere that the children of Israel were to learn about complete reliance on God. It was in the desert, as in no other place, that they would understand that all sustenance comes from God Himself.
Isolation is another aspect of desert living. Life in societies where ideas, customs and behaviors constantly swirl around you has its inevitable effect. It is very difficult to stand apart from your surroundings. The newly freed slaves at the very birth of their development into a nation needed time alone before encountering the pagan societies of Canaan. Time in the desert was not just an avoidance scheme; it was a place and time for preparation to become a viable and righteous society. Israel was called to become ‘a light to the nations’. To do so, they themselves first needed to be enlightened and matured. This was the purpose of ‘b’midbar’ – in the desert.
Every spiritual seeker sooner or later has a desert experience. It may not be geographical and often, in fact, it isn’t. The ‘desert’ of the soul can happen in the busiest city because it’s not an external thing; it’s an inner period of suffering, learning, growing, etc. But it’s also a gift from God to lead us closer to Him.
This weekend, we have an interesting convergence of days. Shabbat is on Saturday and as it comes to an end, we immediately transition into the Festival of Shavuot or Pentecost, which is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. A few words about that are in order.
The Torah refers to the five books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. The Torah is a compilation of the historical record from creation to the death of Moses and includes – but is not limited to – the commandments God delivered to Moses at Mt. Sinai; commandments designed to teach the former slaves (and us) how to live out a life of holiness in relationship with the God of Israel. In addition to the commandments, there are multiplied narratives of the experiences of the biblical Patriarchs, the released slaves, wars and conquests, etc. Therefore, we should understand that the term ‘Law’ in reality should not be used interchangeably with the word Torah. For, ‘the Law’ refers to the commandments within the Torah but the entire Torah is more than laws.
Shavuot is a day when God holds out His hand and invites us to enter into that scary place called relationship – where the goal is closeness to God, not outward traditions and not necessarily practical benefit. Living in intimacy with God will cost you. Opportunities arise in all of our lives that seem “too good to pass up” but are they really? The primary question in choosing which opportunities to accept should be: Will this position or location afford me the opportunity to enhance my spiritual life or will it hinder my spiritual growth? Am I inclined to accept only because of the significantly higher salary or have I sought the Lord, as David did consistently, for His direction for my life? Sad testimonies abound detailing the collapse of families, divorces and tragedies that resulted from a misplaced priority of pursuing money and position over family considerations.
Shavuot calls us to review our priorities. Is my relationship with God my highest priority? If not, I need to repent. Are my family relationships intact? If not, we have some work to do in resolving whatever issues there are that hinder the love, peace and joy that are meant to characterize a godly home.
This Shabbat/Shavuot weekend let us make it a priority to spend quality time in the presence of God – each of us personally – and resolve to deepen our relationship with Him and with those we love.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach Shavuot (may Pentecost joy be yours!)