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Toward Shabbat: Bamidbar

May 22, 2020

We enter this Shabbat Bamidbar, in the seventh and last week of the Counting of the Omer and within spiritual reach of Mount Sinai, ready to receive the Torah once again. 

But why do we need to receive the Torah again if we already received it last year, and all the previous years throughout the generations? We certainly do not need to be given again something we already have, and it is not as if we have used the Torah up.

The answer lies in a fascinating reading of the following verse:

אֶֽת־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֡לֶּה דִּבֶּר֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֶל־כָּל־קְהַלְכֶ֜ם בָּהָ֗ר מִתּ֤וֹךְ הָאֵשׁ֙ הֶֽעָנָ֣ן וְהָֽעֲרָפֶ֔ל ק֥וֹל גָּד֖וֹל וְלֹ֣א יָסָ֑ף וַֽיִּכְתְּבֵ֗ם עַל־שְׁנֵי֙ לֻחֹ֣ת אֲבָנִ֔ים וַֽיִּתְּנֵ֖ם אֵלָֽי׃

Adonai spoke these words to your whole congregation at the mountain, with a mighty voice out of the fire and the dense clouds velo yasaf

Deuteronomy 5:19

Velo yasaf can mean alternatively “without end” or “no more.” It is the first interpretation, “God spoke these words…without end,” that prompted the Maharal of Prague to teach:

“Wisdom flows from God to all creatures, and each day we say ‘enlighten our eyes with Your Torah,’ and thus the flow of Torah is not confined simply to God or to Moses.” (Derekh Hayim, Tractate Avot).

In the blessing over the Torah we say “noten hatorah—who gives the Torah”, in the present tense. “In truth God already gave it but is still giving it, without end.” (Rabbi Isaiah Howowitz, Shnei Luhot Haberit, 25a. Both this teaching and the Maharal’s are cited in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Heavenly Torah, p. 671)

The Torah is still flowing and God is still revealing it to us. Velo yasaf, without end, God is never done revealing Torah. 

Building on this notion, some Hasidic masters teach that each year at Shavuot a new Torah comes to us, new teachings, and not just some general principles but rather the specific wisdom and guidance that we need in order to meet the challenges we will face in the year ahead.

The year ahead is certain to challenge us in unprecedented ways and in all aspects of our lives—physical, material, emotional, social, intellectual, moral, and spiritual. We will need fresh and relevant Torah more than ever. 

In an environment of constant lies and deception, of nefarious ideologies and conspiracy theories, of the repudiation of facts and science, we need the Torah to keep us firmly committed to the truth.

In a time when so many are suffering—from illness, loss, anguish and financial deprivation—we need the Torah to open our hearts to compassion

In a time when our natural inclination may be one of exclusive concern for our own wellbeing and that of our loved ones, we need the Torah to lead us to generosity and solidarity.

In a time of prolonged uncertainty and fear, we need the Torah to instill in us resilience and hope.

In a time of unprecedented “normals” and as new paradigms emerge, we need the Torah to awaken our imagination, creativity, and courage.

In a time of ever-growing social contention and strife, we need the Torah to teach us to walk on her paths of pleasantness and peace.

In a time when so much depends on the actions of each one of us, and when more than ever we are each required to do our part for the sake of all, we need the Torah to call us to responsibility.

Our lives are changing significantly and so is our world. A new Torah will be offered to us this Shavuot, one that will walk with us and guide us on the complicated journey we are on. I believe it is God’s gift to us, and I pray that we accept it with open hearts, minds, and souls.

J. Rolando Matalon

Written By J. Rolando Matalon

José Rolando Matalon, B’nai Jeshurun’s senior rabbi, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and was educated in Buenos Aires, Montreal, Jerusalem, and New York City. After his ordination at the Jewis...