Parshat B’Midbar & Shavuot: It Is All About How We Receive

Torah Reading B’Midbar

B’Midbar is the first portion in the fourth book of the Torah. The word B’Midbar means ‘desert.’ The portion addresses two major themes:

  1. The census taken of people eligible for military service
  2. The strategic formation of the tribes in preparation for future battles

As exemplified by the State of Israel, a nation must protect itself with a strong military.

Shavuot: It Is All About How We Receive

Rabbi’s Note: During Shavuot Yizkor on Sunday I will address the Embassy question as well as the Gaza violence. I will share those remarks in next week’s blog.

One of my favorite stories dates back to 1974. As a much younger man I staffed a busload of Jewish teens travelling cross country. Our trip was USY on WHEELS, one of the summer programs sponsored by Conservative Judaism.

For some inexplicable reason, we were scheduled to spend a Shabbat in Las Vegas. Due to prior incidents at a sister hotel, we were forced to spend Shabbat in some tiny dive on the Las Vegas strip. Whereas the host hotel would generally heat up the kosher food tins we brought with us; this hotel lacked a kitchen.

Just before Shabbat, a nearby and (well known) casino granted us space on their top floor so that we could eat our meals and do our Shabbat praying. They agreed to heat up our food. To reach the hotel we had to walk – in our Shabbat finest – several blocks down the strip. We entered the main floor of the hotel to the sounds of slot machines, black jack players and party revelers. Needless to say, the atmosphere was not so conducive to Shabbat observance! Despite the atmosphere or perhaps because of it, we enjoyed a rousing Shabbat I have not experienced before or since. That memorable Shabbat, our teenagers learned as much about being Jewish as they could learn in a synagogue or school. No matter how hostile the environment to a proper Jewish experience; with motivation and some initial desire, Judaism can thrive anywhere.

The holiday of Shavuot (which begins Saturday night) is called z’man matan torataynu; the occasion when we received our Torah. At Mt. Sinai the Torah was revealed for the first time. Although the entire community stood at Sinai to accept the Torah, each individual would ultimately determine how to embrace it. Over the centuries every generation of Jews has confronted its own Sinai; deciding how to embrace that Torah in good times and bad. Every generation has faced threatening environments, hostile (and often anti-Semitic) rulers, and challenging conditions for any type of Jewish living. Yet, the fact that we still celebrate Shavuot suggests that whatever the obstacles, Am Yisrael has endured, resolute in our commitment to Jewish education and Jewish continuity.

My wish is that with another Shavuot soon to begin, our generation will not allow hostile environments, outside and within, to provide an excuse for Jewish indifference. Today we face one of the most formidable challenges perhaps since the Holocaust; the challenge of overcoming the apathy within Am Yisrael itself. Hopefully, a new flame will be ignited within Jewish communities throughout the world, so that Judaism will continue to thrive wherever Jew may live.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach,

Rabbi Klayman

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