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Bamidbar & Shavuot – A thought for the week by Michael Lewis

Updated: May 14, 2021

As we stood in the wilderness there was a census and the disposition of the tribes is described; each with their own emblem and each in the regimented form around the tent of meeting. In the Hertz Chumash we have the sketch of this arrangement (it is the only sketch in the Chumash). The English name of this book is “Numbers”. Just how long it took to record such a large assembly is not reported but it would have taken a long time.

What is set down is the number of men of fighting age. This gives a sense of the strength of the army. What we are not told is the count of the women. Rabbi Sachs commented

When you want to know the strength of an army, as in the beginning of Bamidbar, count the men. But when you want to know the strength of a civilisation, look to women.

The Sedra is always connected to Shavuot which, although not specified as such in the Torah, is understood as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. What we brought into the wilderness was the Law which would guide us even before we had a land. We have had to survive many times in various “wildernesses” but the Law and the Covenant stayed with us over the centuries.


It is on Monday that we celebrate Shavuot, marking the end of counting the Omer 49 days after Pesach. It is one of the Shlosh Regalim, the three pilgrim festivals described in the Torah and observed in the Temple in Jerusalem. The other two biblical names for this holiday: are "Yom Habikurim" or the "Day of the First Fruits." and "Chag HaKatzir," the "Harvest Festival.”


The customs which have grown up are familiar although with local variations. We eat cheesecake in all its many varieties, we decorate the Shul, and we recite of the Book of Ruth and recite Yizkor following a night of study. These customs have become embedded in our history.


Probably the least appreciated is the additional prayer, Akdamut Milim, recited before the first aliyah. This poem, composed during the Middle Ages, was signed, by means of an acrostic, by Meir ben Isaac Nehorai, a rabbi who lived in Worms during the massacres along the Rhineland. It has remained in the liturgy for centuries as a stubborn reminder of our persistence as a people.


The sights and sounds we are experiencing this week from Israel are a stark reminder of our history, our attachment to the land, to Jerusalem and to our fellow Jews.

עַם יִשְׂרָאֵל חַי עוֹד אָבִינוּ חַי
Am Yisrael chai, od avinu chai!
The People of Israel live, our Father lives.
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