Weekly Torah Commentary — Bamidbar & Shavuot May 22, 2015

Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

This week we begin a new book of the Torah, the Book of Numbers, so-called because of the extensive census taken of the children of Israel. However, in Hebrew it is known as Bamidbar, which literally means “in the desert.”

Commentaries abound on the spiritual meaning of the desert and ‘desert experiences’ in spirituality. In the Torah, one figure stands out as the powerful example of such experiences.

We find a man with an advanced knowledge of science, literature, and military tactics living on the backside of the desert with his father-in-law, raising a couple of boys and watching over a flock of sheep that did not even belong to him.

Moses entered the desert at the age of forty and didn’t leave until he was eighty. So during the span of life most people consider as the most productive years, Moses tended sheep as an unknown, humbled servant. The first forty years he was nursed by his mother and educated in the courts of Pharaoh. The second forty years he spent in the desert working for his father-in-law while being taught by God and the final forty years he fulfilled his life’s purpose: to lead the children of Israel out of slavery.

One commentator made the insightful remark: Moses spent his first forty years thinking he was somebody; spent his next forty years finding out he was a nobody and his final forty years discovering what God can do with a nobody.”

The proverbial ‘desert experience’ is discussed in many spiritual writings and Torah commentaries, but at its heart is this simple message: the desert is the place of encounter with the living God.

Sometimes God has to take us through a barren wilderness experience places to teach us what we need to learn. He set the pattern with the children of Israel. Your wilderness may not be a literal desert but a time of loneliness or inner doubt; it may be a period of new challenge, a struggle with unknowns, the trauma of an unexpected tragedy which plunges you into a depression or prolonged self-pity. Each desert experience is tailor made for the individual whom God desires to prune, as the gardener does a tree in order that it may become more fruitful.

When faced with our own ‘wilderness’ we can react in three ways. 1) “What did I ever do to deserve this? I don’t need it!” My spouse may need it, my sister may need it, my neighbor may need it, but I certainly do not!” (A little humility needed perhaps???)

2) “I’m tired of it.” No matter how long we may have been in a desert experience it always seems too long. But if it’s less than Moses’ forty years, count yourself blessed when you feel like saying, “I’m tired of dealing with this person, this situation, this circumstance. I’ve had it! I’m done!” (Have you noticed that God is never ‘done’ when you are???)

3) The response that God is waiting to hear is: “Here I am. What do you want me to learn?”

Principle – God never does anything without a purpose. God put Moses through a forty year course in the wilderness so he would know how to lead a whole nation through a similar wilderness.

But you may ask: Why does God lead us through desert places at all? Is it really necessary?

Moses himself tells us that it is in order that God can humble us, and test us, that the true condition of our heart might be revealed. It is not so that God can know us, He already does; it so that we can know ourselves. In Deuteronomy 8:2 says, “And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not.”

Our ‘desert’ seasons impart life lessons we can learn nowhere else. In the desert, God taught Moses how to deal with past failures and painful memories. As Moses marched off into the desert Moses may have believed that God could not, would not ever use him again. God used those years to teach Moses how to forgive himself. Can you imagine what the 40 years guiding the whole nation of Israel through the wilderness would have been like if Moses had not learn to first forgive himself so that could forgive others?

Another very important lesson that God taught Moses in the “School of the Desert” was how to handle monotony, how to wait on God and not give up. You see, frustrating as it may seem to me and to you, God is not at all concerned with our concept of time! He has no obligation to conform to our timetable; it is we who must conform to His!

In Tune with Torah this week = If you find yourself in “God’s School of the Desert” don’t despair. God has some things that He wants you to learn so that you can become the person He sees you can be. The ‘desert’ is the place to put the past in the past and move on; the place to stop running from one dead end to another and to wait until God leads you out.

This Sunday we celebrate the Festival of Shavuot or Pentecost. The ultimate purpose of leading the children of Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness was that they should arrive at Mt. Sinai to experience the singularly profound moment of God’s descent on the mountain to deliver to them through Moses the Torah of life.

This weekend is an especially important time to renew our love for and re-dedicate ourselves to the study of God’s Word. May we all experience a fresh outpouring of His Divine Presence as we remember the events of Shavuot/Pentecost!

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Passover & the Omer April 10, 2015

As we are coming to the end of this year’s Passover celebration, the regular reading of the Torah portions is not resumed until next week.  So, let’s look at a relevant topic in which the Jewish people are involved at present.

From the second day of Passover, we are commanded to “count the omer.” 

You shall count for yourselves — from the day after the Shabbat, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving — seven Shabbats, they shall be complete. Until the day after the seventh sabbath you shall count, fifty days… -Leviticus 23:15-16

You shall count for yourselves seven weeks, from when the sickle is first put to the standing crop shall you begin counting seven weeks. Then you will observe the Festival of Shavu’ot for the LORD, your God. -Deuteronomy 16:9-10

So what is this all about?

We are counting the days between the first day of Passover – when the Exodus from Egypt took place – to the festival of Shavuot or Pentecost, when the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai. The practice is designed to remind us that the deliverance from Egypt had as its great purpose to lead the former slaves to a life-changing encounter with God Himself on Mt. Sinai, where they were gifted with His instructions for achieving a life of holiness. Counting the omer is a means to keep forefront in our mind the truth that the redemption from Egypt was not only about ‘going out’. More importantly, it was about ‘coming in’ to an intimate relationship with God Himself.

As there is no Temple today where an omer of grain can be waved before the God of Israel, as we count each day and recite a blessing that accompanies the counting, our anticipation increases, much as a bride counts the days until her wedding. A love for and desire to receive the Word of the Living God is stirred within us as we anticipate Shavuot.

It is a period of inner reflection. How much do I love the Word of God? How often do I read it? Meditate on it? If I review my activities over the past month, the past three months, the past six months, did I spend more time reading other books, newspapers and magazines than I devoted to thoughtful reading of the Scriptures?

Psalm 119 is full of exhortations towards reading and meditating on God’s Word. For example, “Deal bountifully with Your servant that I may live and keep Your Word. Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from your Torah. I am a stranger in the earth; do not hide Your commandments from me.”

And, “Oh, how I love Your Torah! It is my meditation all day long. Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies.”

And again, “Your Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path.”

And one of my favorites: “Those who love Your Word have great peace, and nothing causes them to stumble.”

Indeed, taking Psalm 119 as a guide for prayer and meditation would keep one going for several weeks, even months.

What countless ills in our modern society stem from a marginalizing of God’s Word in our society? How many personal and family issues could be resolved in a godly way by each individual applying the teachings of Scripture in humility and faithfulness?

Counting the Omer is a season of weeks in which we are called to remember that though heaven and earth pass away, the revelation of the Living God, His inestimable Words of truth and light, will never, ever pass away.

In Tune with Torah this week = take a fresh look at the Scriptures, approaching them as if you were receiving this gift for the very first time. Ask God to open your mind to His revelation, to grant you understanding and the accompanying grace to put into practice all that you learn from these sacred pages.

Shabbat Shalom