Desert
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Generally people translate "Midbar" as "Desert", but Dr Avivah Zornberg points out that the word does not denote a place of sands and winds but a noisy chaotic mixture.

If we follow Rashi in his commentary to the end of the Book of Exodus, the Book of B’midbar might fittingly bear the name "Sefer Vayedabber" since "Vayedabber" is the first Hebrew word.

Linking "midbar" with "dabber", "to speak", Dr. Zornberg suggests that "midbar" is a place of strange noises, chaos instead of civilisation.

Once, chaos was a place which people tried to turn into civilisation by making it ordered, refined and dignified, but this is not the current notion of civilisation. Instead we now have corruption and a-morality, and people twist their words and compromise their consciences.

"Out with ethics" seems to be the politically correct slogan, and chaos is back.


NUMBERS

The opening chapters of Sefer B’midbar are concerned with the census taken by Moses of male Israelites aged 20-plus who are able to go to war.

The total Israelite population – excluding women, children and Levites – is just over 600,000. Add Levites, women and children and you reach a total of something like two million. The English name "Numbers" is a translation of the title which the Septuagint Greek version gives to the Book.

The Torah readings of B’midbar this year coincide with population surveys which indicate that the current numbers of world Jewry have not yet reached the pre-Holocaust figure of about 17 million but we are slowly getting there.

The fastest growing section of Jews is the Orthodox, who have a higher birth rate than any other section. It is estimated that within 20 years two in seven Jews will be "charedi" (ultra-orthodox).


A MOBILE MISHKAN

Mobile phones, mobile PCs, mobile homes, mobile libraries, mobile shops – ubiquitous features of the modern landscape.

In the wilderness the Children of Israel had a mobile Mishkan, a sanctuary that could be taken apart when they moved and re-erected wherever they encamped.

Jewish history utilised the concept over and over again. Mobility and migration punctuated the centuries of our people’s experience. Communities struck roots but after a while were forced back on the move.

When they moved they often had to leave precious things behind, even magnificent synagogues. The one thing they never abandoned was their Sifrei Torah.

I actually made the personal acquaintance of one of those Torah scrolls. A Jewish family that had to leave Germany in a hurry rescued a little Torah from their local synagogue and it went with them on their vicissitudes. They ended up in Australia, and so did their scroll.

By then it was no longer so clear and readable, but it had survived, as they had, and its frayed cloth cover came with it.

When the Maritime Museum organised a Migration exhibition the scroll was placed on display as part of the migration that brought so much change to Australian society. I even have a picture somewhere of me holding up the opened Torah and explaining its story to the audience.

That is part of the "Mobile Mishkan" concept in Jewish life. One of the fears I have is that when modern Jews move, not necessarily for reasons of persecution but for economic advantage, they might forget to take their tradition with them…

THE JEWISH COUNT-DOWNS

The countdown to Shavu’ot is the 49 days of the Omer. Beginning on the second evening of Pesach we formally count the days that link the two festivals.

Not that this is the only count-down in Jewish practice and philosophy. Every time we are on the road to a culminating moment we count the days one by one. Like a little child counting how many sleeps there are to their birthday, we confirm that we are en route, and we declare where we have got to so far.

We have so many time-counts in Judaism – 7 days making up each week, 3 weeks linking the fasts of Tammuz and Av, 10 days starting with Rosh HaShanah and culminating in Yom Kippur, 7 years making up the cycle from one Shemitah year to the next… and so on.

Three things feature in every count – where we have come from, where we are heading, where we are at this moment. Where we have come from shows where we have been, where we are heading announces what destiny we hope for, where we are enables us to judge whether we are on the right track.


THE DATE

Shavu’ot is the only festival we have whose date we arrive at by calculation and not by textual announcement.

In ancient times – in the days of the Second Temple – when the Pharisees and Sadducees were in conflict about a whole range of theological and halachic issues, they knew and accepted that they had to follow the rule in Parashat Emor (Lev. 23:15) that "from the morrow of the day of rest", seven weeks had to elapse before celebrating Shavu’ot on the fiftieth day.

But each group defined "day of rest" differently. The Sadducees took the phrase literally and said it meant Saturday, so for them the counting of the days and weeks always began after just after Shabbat, and Shavu’ot was always on a Sunday.

The Pharisees said that "day of rest" did not have to mean Saturday but could also indicate a festival. So they began counting as from the second day of Pesach, "the morrow of the Pesach festival day". The two groups ended up with different results.

Why we follow the Pharisees is that they had the advantage of the Oral Torah which studied and interpreted the Torah text. It’s because of the Pharisees that Jewry is a people of scholars, and with the necessary background and belief every Jew can play a part in learning and living the tradition of Judaism.

A century ago some scholars argued that "day of rest" meant “full moon’. Since the date of Pesach is 15 Nisan the counting towards the festival of Shavu’ot commenced on the second day of Pesach. It’s an ingenious suggestion, but it is hard to know what evidence there is for this interpretation of "day of rest".


GREENS & FLOWERS

Long established custom decorates homes and synagogues on Shavu’ot with green branches and flowers.

One explanation is that when the Torah was given on Sinai, the barren mountain responded to the privilege by sprouting greenery.

Another view is that, as we see in Mishnah Rosh HaShanah, the month of Sivan when Shavu’ot occurs is a time of Heavenly judgment of the fruit of the trees. Hence decorating homes and synagogues with greenery reminds us to take Shavu’ot seriously… otherwise it seems to be the poor relation in the Jewish calendar.

In many places it is the lily of the valley that is the favourite flower, symbolic of the beauty and majesty of the Divine commandments.


SITTING UP ALL NIGHT

Nobody knows enough Torah. Even the "gedolei ha-dor" (the intellectual giants of the generation) will tell you how ignorant they are. Sitting up all night on Shavu’ot to study Torah is a wonderful opportunity to add to our knowledge.

It is said that the night of study was introduced by Rabbi Joseph Karo, redactor of the Shulchan Aruch. Why is this practice called "Tikkun Leil Shavu’ot"? "Tikkun" means "repair". What we are doing is to make good the lapse which the Midrash attributes to the Children of Israel, who slept in on the night before the Revelation and needed thunder and lightning to wake them in the morning to hear God revealing the Ten Commandments.

Some follow the order of study in a book which combines passages from Biblical and rabbinic literature; others work out their own agenda of issues to discuss and debate.ration exhibition the scroll was placed on display as part of the migration that brought so much change to Australian society. I even have a picture somewhere of me holding up the opened Torah and explaining its story to the audience.

That is part of the "Mobile Mishkan" concept in Jewish life. One of the fears I have is that when modern Jews move, not necessarily for reasons of persecution but for economic advantage, they might forget to take their tradition with them…

Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com