B’MIDBAR (Numbers, 1:1-4:20)/SHAVUOS — “Marching Orders”


Next Sunday night is the beginning of the Holiday of Shavuos.  Shavuos commemorates the day, 50 days after the Exodus from Egypt, when G-d gave us the Torah.

For more on Shavuos click here or here.

“Marching Orders”

Picture the impressive scene: The Nation of Israel, several million strong, marching through the desert in formation.  A large square, with three tribes on each side, marching in unison under their respective banners.  They were the very epitome of majestic decorum and military discipline.

In fact, this week’s Torah Portion places considerable emphasis on military matters.  G-d spoke to Moses in the Desert of Sinai…saying, “Take a census of the entire community of Israel…  from twenty years old and above, everyone who goes out to the army of Israel.”  (Numbers, 1:1-3)

Imagine the fear that this formidable army must have inspired as they paraded through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.  Please forgive the comparison, but in my mind I can’t help but to envision the old newsreels of conquering armies occupying Paris and Warsaw; a large military machine, marching in lockstep, demonstrating for all to see, what a powerful fighting force was coming into town.

But the similarity ends there.  The Nation of Israel marched the way they camped.  With three tribes in each direction, they surrounded the encampment of the Levites, who, in turn, surrounded the Tabernacle and the Ark, containing the two sets of Tablets with the Ten Commandments engraved on them.  (Two sets of Tablets — the broken ones, and the replacement set.)

This Sunday evening, Jews throughout the world will stay up all night.  No, we won’t be partying till the break of dawn.  No, we won’t be watching endless reruns of Gilligan’s Island.  What will we be doing?  We’ll be studying.  Monday morning, Shavuos, is the anniversary of the day when Moses and the Children of Israel stood at Mt. Sinai at daybreak and received instructions from the Master of the World as to how He expects us to live our lives.  We commemorate this defining moment in our history by spending the night before in preparation to receive the Torah.

The Israelites camped and marched with the Ark in the middle because everything this army did was based upon the guidelines laid out to them by the Torah. “Not by might, nor by power, but rather, by My Spirit”, says G-d. (Zechariah, 4:6)  Our goals are different; our emphasis is different.

“We thank You, G-d for establishing our portion among those who dwell in the house of study, and have not established our portion with those who “hang out” on street corners; for we get up early and they get up early; we get up early for words of Torah, while they get up early for idle words; we toil and they toil; we toil and receive reward, they toil and do not receive reward; we run, and they run…”  (Prayer that is recited at the conclusion of the study of a tractate of the Talmud)

We have an army, and they have an army.  Their army marches for conquest and terror; our army marches for justice and security.  Their army targets innocent children for murder; our army warns enemies to evacuate buildings before we blow them up.  Our army mourns the deaths of ALL people.  Their army celebrates the martyrdom of their own people.

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky tells the following story:

After the Nazis invaded the small village of Klausenberg, they began to celebrate in their usual sadistic fashion. They gathered the Jews into a circle in the center of town, and then paraded their Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusial Yehuda Halberstam, into the center. They began taunting and teasing him, pulling his beard and pushing him around. The vile soldiers trained their guns on him as the commander began to speak. “Tell us Rabbi,” sneered the officer, “do you really believe that you are the Chosen People?”

The soldiers guarding the crowd howled in laughter. But the Rebbe did not. In a serene voice, he answered loud and clear, “Most certainly.” The officer became enraged. He lifted his rifle above his head and sent it crashing on the head of the Rebbe.

The Rebbe fell to the ground. There was rage in the officer’s voice.  “Do you still think you are the Chosen People?” he yelled.

Once again, the Rebbe nodded his head and said, “Yes, we are.” The officer became infuriated. He kicked the rebbe in the shin and repeated. “You stupid Jew, you lie here on the ground, beaten and humiliated. What makes you think that you are the Chosen People?”

From the depths of humiliation clouded in dust, the Rebbe replied. “As long as we are not the ones kicking and beating innocent people, we can call ourselves chosen.”


Let us give thanks for who we are.  And let us give thanks for who we are NOT.  This Sunday night let us hit the books and study all about our wonderful heritage and our sacred obligations.  Let us read and obey our orders from the Commander-in-Chief: “Forward…March!”

Have a great Shabbos and an inspiring and soul-awakening Shavuos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.


From the Archives

“Can Familiarity Breed CONTENT?” (2010)

A fellow came up to me in Shul recently and asked, “Why is it so hard to pray with feeling?”

… I studied at a Yeshiva in Israel for six years.  Then I left Israel, not to return for twenty years.  Ten  years ago, I went back…

I went to the Kotel.  The Western Wall, the sole remnant of a magnificent Temple of G-d that the Romans destroyed two thousand years ago; a Temple that we pray every day to see rebuilt.  ATemple over which our People have shed millions of tears for thousands of years.

As Jewish Law requires, I tore my shirt the same way a mourner does at the funeral of a loved one.  I stood there at the ruins of our Temple in my torn shirt looking like a mourner.  But you know what?  Deep down, I didn’t FEEL like a mourner!

I couldn’t understand it.  At the Tombs of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs I was overcome with emotion.  Why was the site of our destroyed Temple different?

I’m a religious Jew.  I pray every day for the Messiah to come and for the Temple to be rebuilt.  I fast every Tisha B’Av, and join my People in mourning for the Temple.   Why did I not feel the same, deep emotions that I felt at those other places?

I don’t know for sure, but I have a theory…

Read more.


“How do I Love Thee?  Let me Count the DAYS” (2009)

… Picture a wealthy man sitting in his treasure house counting his money.  How many times does he need to count?  He already knows, from the first count, how much he has.  Why does he continue?

Because he loves his money!!  Every gold and silver coin jingles as it drops back into the money bag.  He is so caught up with his love of money that he just sits there counting it, again and again and again.

That’s how much G-d loves you.  He adores you, His precious and beloved child!  Therefore He counts us, again and again and again.

We, too, have been counting…

Read more.


“Hair Today — Gone Tomorrow!” (2004)

… Reuters listed the story in its “Oddity” category, citing a “ritual ban” by “an ultraorthodox sage.”  … The New York Times, that bastion of Jewish anti-semitism, examined the human-interest and business ramifications of the ban.  NewsRadio WCBS described a “demonstration” in Brooklyn.

Everything I read or heard in the media seemed to suggest a fringe (pun intended!) fanatic group of religious fundamentalists reacting with intolerance toward the beliefs and practices of others.  Chat rooms all over the web abounded with obnoxious off-color comments and jokes.

What’s going on?  The issue revolves around a temple in India where pilgrims offer their hair to a Hindu deity.  This hair is then sold as a fund-raiser for the temple.  Apparently, some of this hair has found its way into the wigs worn by religious Jewish women.  Rabbinic leaders have declared these wigs unusable, due to having been used for idolatrous practices.

The media are going to town, describing Jewish women in a frenzy, lost without their precious wigs.  The news reporters especially enjoy telling us about group “wig burnings.”  Can’t you just envision the mob scene, as wide-eyed “ultraorthodox fanatics” launch the offensive hairpieces onto the raging pyre? …

Read more.


“Humility vs. Self-Esteem” (2003)

Life is filled with contradictions.  We are told to be humble.  Then the Torah tells us how great we are…

Read more.


Legacy Building” (2002)

I’ll never forget that night…February 14, 1979.  It was the evening when I first met the young lady who would eventually become my bride…

Rabbi Kagan, the leader of world Jewry, was, at the time, quite old. He asked the young man if he was a Kohain. The young man replied that he was not. “Why not?” asked the sage. “Because my father’s not a Kohain.” “Why not?” “Because HIS father wasn’t a Kohain.”

Once the youth was sufficiently confused by the interrogation, the Chofetz Chaim explained his point…

Read more.


“Marching Orders” (2001)

… After the Nazis invaded the small village of Klausenberg, they began to celebrate in their usual sadistic fashion…The officer became enraged. He lifted his rifle above his head and sent it crashing on the head of the Rebbe.

The Rebbe fell to the ground. There was rage in the officer’s voice.  “Do you still think you are the Chosen People?” he yelled.

Once again, the Rebbe nodded his head and said, “Yes, we are.” The officer became infuriated. He kicked the rebbe in the shin and repeated. “You stupid Jew, you lie here on the ground, beaten and humiliated. What makes you think that you are the Chosen People?”…

Read more.


This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2011 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com) and chaplain inMonsey,New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.


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Published in: on May 24, 2001 at 7:14 am  Leave a Comment  

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