On the eve of Shavuot, let the Torah teach us to live as a community

Bamidbar
Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
I Samuel 20:18 – 20:42

On Thursday night, June 1, many of us will stay up late, with coffee and cheesecake to aid our Torah study, preparing for Shavuot, the holiday that gave us the nickname “People of the Book.” It is the culmination of the Omer period, the seven weeks following Passover.

What is the final Torah portion read before the big day? The Torah reading this Shabbat is Bamidbar. The Talmud in Megillah (31B) points out that this is intentional.

The portion of Bechukotai, with its stern warnings for poor behavior, is read two weeks before Shavuot and Bamidbar is read immediately prior to the holiday. The calendar of Torah readings was designed so that Bechukotai and Bamidbar would be read during the two weeks just before Shavuot each year.

However, when one looks into the portion for pre-holiday inspiration, it is difficult to uncover. With details of census and encampments, Bamidbar is very technical.

What can this possibly offer us just before Shavuot? Why was the system designed with this reading set to occur just before the holiday of the Torah?

The Talmudic passage explains that in order to foster an appropriate mindset, the rabbis arranged these stern portions to be read before Rosh Hashanah and the receipt of the Torah on Shavuot.

While this lends gravity to those holidays, it does not explain the one-week lag in which we read our present portion.

If we are supposed to read serious material in advance of the holiday, why not read Bechukotai on the Shabbat before Shavuot? Why allow the detail-heavy reading of Bamidbar to interrupt the mood?

The commentary of Tosfot in the Talmud suggests that perhaps we allow a break so that we do not enter the holiday with a heavy heart. Bechukotai’s intense rebuke would drag down our holiday.

By reading Bamidbar between Bechukotai and Shavuot, we gain the necessary time to recover and enter the holiday with both focus and festivity in our hearts.

There may, however, be a more positive reason. One of my teachers, Rabbi Schacter, pointed out an underlying thread in Bamidbar.

Look at its contents: counting the Jewish People, arranging them into encampments for their journey, specifications of who would camp with whom, on what side of the camp, etc. It is a guide to the community planning of the Jewish people in the desert.

Why read this portion before Shavuot?

Because that is how we can best approach the holiday of the Torah: as a community of individuals embracing this precious gift.

In the Torah reading, we are taught that a census must be conducted through the collection of coins and not the counting of heads.

Why? Because we are people, not numbers. Every Jew is a unique individual and cannot be quantified as a mere number.

Yet, we are also offered the specifics of the camp, for life is to be lived in community and shared with others. We may be individuals, but we are meant to choose our company and companionship.

We are reminded before Shavuot to choose to share our lives with a group of people that embrace the Torah. We are reminded to join together in the pursuit of deep thought, inspiration and personal growth. In less than a week, we will be given the precious gift of the Torah again, the inheritance of our people.

May we receive it together, each one finding our personal space within it.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Oakland’s Beth Jacob. He can be reached at rabbi@bethjacoboakland.org .