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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Bamidbar

The Language of Judaism

Rabbi Stewart WeissSivan 29 5780
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This Shabbat, we begin a new Sefer - the Book of Bamidbar. We also are preparing for Shavuot, coming next week - when we will commemorate the giving of the Torah. "Bamidbar" means, "in the desert," and the rabbis ask, "Why was the Torah given davka in the Midbar, a wilderness and no-man's land?? Why not within Israel, the Holy Land?

And they answer: Had it been given in the city, some would have said it was applicable only in heavily-populated areas, where people lived near each other and so needed to know how to relate to their fellow-man. Had it been given in a field or open space, then people might have said it was applicable just in agricultural places, since so many Torah laws deal with agriculture. And had it been given either in Israel, or in a foreign country, they might have thought it applied only to Jews or to non-Jews, respectively. By choosing to give the Torah in a wilderness, between Egypt and Israel, neither in a city nor on a farm, it was clear that the Torah was meant for all people everywhere.

But the word "Bamidbar" also contains the letters of "Daber bam," or "speak about them." This not only is a charge to us to speak about the Torah to our families and our communities, it also is a message that our single-greatest asset and talent - "weapon," if you will - is our power of speech. "Life and death," says Shlomo HaMelech in Mishlei (18:21), "are in the power of the tongue."

Indeed, all of Sefer Bamidbar will be centered around language, and speech.

- In Parshat Naso, we will hear the confession of the "Sotah," and the vow of the Nazir. We will also record the Birkat Kohanim as they magnificently bless the people.

- In B'ha'alotcha, the people who missed celebrating Pesach will petition Moshe for a second chance; the nation will begin its complaints against Moshe, and even Miriam and Ahron will speak out against their beloved brother.

- In Sh'lach, the Meraglim scouts will issue their diatribe against conquering the Land of Israel, and Moshe will appeal to Hashem for clemency.

- In Korach, Moshe's cousin will launch a rebellion against Ahron and Moshe, relying mostly upon his oratorical skills to incite the rebels.

- In Chukat, the people will continue their complaining, and Moshe will fail to speak to the rock to bring water, striking it instead. Also, the Song in the Book of Hashem's Wars will be sung.

- In Parshat Balak, Bilaam will attempt to curse Am Yisrael, but 3 times his curses will be turned by Hashem into blessings.

- In Parshat Pinchas, the daughters of Zelofchad will argue for their rightful share in the Land; Moshe will also ask Hashem for a proper successor to be named.

- Parshat Matot is all about vows and oaths, as well as the request by Reuven and Gad to reside east of the Jordan.

- Finally, in Masei, the petition of Zelofchad's daughters is addressed by G-d, who rules in their favor. We rise as one to declare, "Chazak, Chazak, V'nitchazeik!"

Sefer Bamidbar will conclude just as we will bentsch the advent of the month of Av. There is no better way to prepare for the difficult days of Av than by guarding our speech, limiting our negative language, and utilizing this great gift of communication we are blessed with, to bring people closer to one another and to Hashem. If we talk the right talk, we'll walk the right walk.
Rabbi Stewart Weiss
Was ordained at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, and led congregations in Chicago and Dallas prior to making Aliyah in 1992. He directs the Jewish Outreach Center in Ra'anana, helping to facilitate the spiritual absorption of new olim.
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