Bamidbar: Ya Gotta Have Heart

Whether you are a child beginning studies in our own Congregation Beth Shalom Religious School, or an adult studying at an Israeli Ulpan, one of the first Hebrew words that you will learn is a word used over 600 times in the Bible. That word is “rosh”, or “head”. Our parasha this week begins with G-d commanding Moses to take a census, or, as it says in the Bible, to “count the heads” of all males 20 years and up. The “head” of each tribe would stand with Moses as the census was taken. Even today, the “head” of the government of Israel, the Prime Minister” is called, “Rosh Ha Memshalah”. The spiritual leader of an institution of Torah Study is called the “Rosh Yeshivah”. Of course, the first day of the New Year, or head of the year, is called “Rosh Hashannah”.

Israeli scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsalz poses a question which might seem to have an obvious answer. Why are the leaders of the Jewish people called “heads”? His answer is that just as the head is the most important part of the human body, so the “head” is the most important part of the body politic. The head sends orders to other parts of the body. But it is a two way street. When a part of the body is in pain, it sends a signal to the head to register that feeling. That’s how we know to pull our hand from a flame, or we know to seek medical care when we are sick. So too, an authentic leader must be able to both send orders and feel and register the pain of those that he or she leads. A leader must be able to respond to that pain in a productive way, in a way that heals. A true leader does not just delegate and command.  A true leader is sensitive to the feelings of those who are following and responds appropriately. That is why the leaders of the Jewish people are called “heads”.

Following the census of males over twenty, Moses organizes the tribes according to how they are to set out from Mount Sinai to the Promised Land.  The leading tribe, the tribe of Judah, will be placed at the head of the formation. But the Tent of Meeting, which contains the Ark with the Torah inside of it, will not be at the head along with Judah. One might think the ark, too, would lead the way. Instead, the Tent of Meeting, with the Torah inside, will be at the center of the Israelite formation. 

The Hofetz Chaim, another great 20thcentury sage, explains why the Torah travels at the center of the Israelite formation and not at the head. He compares the Torah to the “heart” of the body. Just as the heart pumps out blood to all of the limbs of the body, so the Torah, “the Tree of Life to all who hold fast to it” nourishes all of the parts of the Jewish people.  Just as the body is sustained by the heart, whose place is in the center of the body, so, all of Israel maintains its vitality through the Torah being the center of Jewish life.

It follows, then, that Torah must be at the center of our synagogue life as well. Other things are important – speakers on terrorism as we heard last week, social action, inter-faith relationships, fund raising, social events, Israeli dancing, youth programming, and the like – but without Torah at the center of synagogue life we are no more than a Jewish Community Center without a pool and a gym.

This Sunday marks the Festival of Shavuot. It is called “zman matan toratenu” – the time of the giving of the Torah. It is the only holiday in the Bible for which a date is not given. Rather, the Festival of Shavuot, celebrating the Giving of the Torah, is connected to Passover, our Festival of Freedom, celebrating our liberation from slavery in Egypt.  If the Torah does not give us a date for Shavuot, how do we know when to observe it?  The Torah tells us to count 49 days, starting with the Second day of Passover. On the 50th day we are to celebrate Shavuot. The 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, the “Counting of the Omer” is like a necklace strung between two holidays, inextricably connecting one to the other.

What is the Torah teaching by connecting these two holidays in this way? In a sense, one can’t have one without the other. Shavuot without Passover is impossible.  Passover without Shavuot makes no sense. Passover without Shavuot makes no sense because Shavuot represents the fulfillment of the promise of freedom.  Freedom is not the negation of bondage. Freedom is not the absence of oppression. Freedom does not end in the escape from slavery. The connection between Passover and Shavuot teaches us that our Exodus from Egypt was not an end in and of itself; rather, it was a means toward the fulfillment of a mission that is embodied in the Torah. Physical freedom is only a partial freedom. Its full realization comes only with the giving and receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Shavuot without Passover is impossible. One cannot serve two masters.  Without freedom, one cannot serve G-d. Freedom is necessary if the Jewish people are to accept the Torah at Sinai. Without the freedom of will to accept “the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven”, as the commandments are called, there could be no Sinai.

On Shavuot, we receive the Torah and understand the essential meaning of the freedom we were granted on Passover. We, as a people, are no longer subject to Pharaoh’s arbitrary rule. Our Rabbis tell us that Pharaoh’s greatest cruelty was that he imposed meaningless work upon the Jewish people. We are now subject to G-d’s rule. We show our acceptance of G-d’s sovereignty over us by observing G-d’s mitzvoth as articulated in the Torah and interpreted by our rabbis. Our work in this world is no longer the meaningless, aimless labor of Pharaoh. Our work, and our very existence, is imbued with divine significance.  That is the heart of the matter.

Shabbat Shalom