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Bamidbar 5782    June 4, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

     A couple of years ago, BC (Before COVID) our children were coming to stay at our home for a few days. Michelle and I took out an old jigsaw puzzle and spread the pieces on a table in our family room. We got a good start on the puzzle before our children came and they would stop by the table and sit for a while and work on the puzzle. As the puzzle neared completion, two things became obvious. First, we would finish the puzzle before everyone left and second, that clearly there were pieces of the puzzle missing. We searched around the floor looking for the missing pieces but three were never found.

     Today is the last day in the counting of the Omer. Today is day forty-nine making up seven complete weeks of counting and tomorrow, the fiftieth day, will be Shavuot – the holiday that marks the day we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. It took three days for the People of Israel to get ready for this revelation. Legend tells us that the people slept late on Shavuot morning and almost missed the giving of the law. That is why, to this day, we stay up all night studying so that we should not miss the moment when God gives us the Torah.

     We start this morning the reading of the fourth book of the Torah, the book of Bamidbar/Numbers. As the People of Israel prepare to march toward the Promised Land, they need to prepare for their trip. There is a census of the people so we would know how many people are traveling and how many men are available to fight if needed. The tribes are all organized around their banners, and everyone is assigned, by tribe, a place to march in the column. The people of each tribe would rally around their tribal banner to march together and to camp together at the end of the day. The census records that there are over 600,000 men in the camp and with women and children, it was a large crowd of people and they needed to stay organized.

     This gets to the heart of some of the biggest questions we ask when we are traveling. Who are we going with? Who will be sitting next to us? Who will we meet when we get to our destination? These are the questions we all ask when we are heading for a new destination. We can see from our Parsha that the People of Israel had similar questions. They all needed to know who they were traveling with, who would be walking next to them and who would be there when they arrived at the Promised Land.

     Rabbi Dr. Mimi Feigelson,  a teacher and advisor at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, wrote this week in her D’var Torah: In this week’s Parasha in the Mei HaShiloach, written by the Ishbitzer Rebbe, says that the word se’u isn’t about counting, it’s about lifting up. When the pasuk says “שְׂא֗וּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ֙ כָּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל”(Num 1:2) it’s about lifting up the head of each and every one of us. He says I’m going to read this to you, “through counting, everyone will be elevated and stand for something.” The word, degel, a flag is what you stand for, and medugal, it is what you represent. But through the counting, there’s a moment when God sees each of us individually. The Ishbitzer Rebbe says it’s like a jigsaw puzzle, “if one piece is missing then the blend is lacking.” One piece is missing from the puzzle, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the sky or a small eye. There is a piece missing, and the puzzle is incomplete. God manifests in the world through the presence of all of us. Who do we walk with? And who will be there when we get there?”

     When the Torah talks about Mt. Sinai, it tells us that every one of the people of Israel was there that day, not only the refugees from Egypt but also those who had lived before them and those who would live in future generations. We all stood that day at the base of Mt. Sinai and all of us not only heard the voice of God and the revelation of Torah, but we all individually affirmed our commitment to living our lives by the standards of our Torah. Every single one of us had to be there. Nobody could claim that Torah does not apply to me because my ancestors were absent that day. We all stood at Sinai, shoulder to shoulder, the living, the dead and those not yet born, an unbroken chain that stretches until eternity. So even until this day, we know who we were standing with and who is traveling this path of Torah with us. We are all in this together.

     It is easy to look at a census and see the total at the bottom. We took a count, and this is the number of Israelites who left Egypt and who are setting off for the Promised land. But we often forget that the census is not about the final number, it is about the individuals that are being counted. There are not six hundred thousand men at Sinai, rather there is only one, six hundred thousand times. It seems that God is the ultimate multitasker. No matter how many of us there are, God speaks to each of us personally. No matter where we may go, God is always with us. It is not just people by our side, but God is right there too.

     Why is this important? Why does Rabbi Feigelson, the Ishbitzer Rebbe and the Midrash care about who was actually at Sinai? Because, like that jigsaw puzzle, every piece is important. Somehow the picture is not complete without every piece. Maybe only a bit of sky is missing from the puzzle. Maybe just some grass or a flower or two, but the picture just looks different when it is missing something. So too, the Jewish people may be eternal, but it all looks different when someone is missing.

     I once heard that the Jewish people can be compared to a sports team. Every member of the team is important. If someone is missing, it is not like we do not play the game. We always are in the game, but we cannot play as well when someone is not there. There are people who just do not think that their commitment to Judaism means anything. Why bother to show up at synagogue when it just does not make a difference to me. Does God care if I am there or not? The short answer is that God does care and so does the rest of the “team.” We are all not at our best when someone is missing. Everything is not complete. There is a spot where something is missing.

     And this is not just a story for the Shabbat before Shavuot. This is not just a sermon about Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah at Sinai. According to the Hasidic masters some four hundred  years ago, Sinai was not just a one-time event in history. We were not given the Torah once and forever. The reality is that we must accept Torah into our lives every day that we are alive. We are all on a journey in life and Torah is the map we use to navigate through all the twists and turns that life has to offer. Like the Israelites, we too need to know who is walking with us; who is by our side; who will be there when we reach our destination.

     When we talk about the unity of the Jewish People, we are asking just these kinds of questions. Are we prepared to be present on this journey, to be there for those who journey with us and to accompany God? Shavuot is the holiday that Rabbis believe is the holiday most often forgotten by Jews. On Pesach we eat Matzah and on Sukkot we have a lulav, etrog and a sukkah. But we have no ritual objects for Shavuot. There is only an appointment to be on time at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. And we know how lax some people can be about being on time for an appointment.

     Rabbi Feigelson writes: “The story is about my teacher, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, who was asked by the head of a yeshiva to go and get his son out of an ashram in the United States many years ago. He sends a note into the ashram, with the message ‘I’m standing on the corner of a certain street. I’ll be waiting for you’. Reb Shlomo recalled,  “I waited, three days”. Finally, the son shows up, and they spoke and had an intense conversation. Reb Carlebach said “Three days! Could you not have shown up three days ago? I had to stand here for three days waiting?” The young man said the following, “I want you to know that when I got the note, I knew my father had sent you. I ripped it up and decided I wasn’t coming. I was not going to meet you yesterday and honestly, this morning, I thought I would still not come.” He said, “Twenty minutes ago, I realized that you’re not going anywhere until I show up. So, I’m here.” 

     Tomorrow God will be waiting for us to leave a part of our secular lives and accept, once again, the Torah at Sinai. God will be waiting for us just as God is waiting for us every day to open our hearts and souls to what our God and our faith have to teach us; how we can join the ranks of Jews who, for centuries, have found meaning and hope for themselves and for the world. Our journey in life needs what our faith has to give us. All we need to do is to show up.

    Judaism will not end if we are absent. But our religion relies on those of us who just show up. There is an ongoing conversation between us and God, an intense conversation, about how we will live our lives and how we will make this world a better place. We do not have to keep God waiting for us. We make the decision every day to go out and meet with God, to do the work that will make this world better. Or we can keep God waiting. One thing that I am sure of is that no matter how long we delay, God is not going anywhere until we show up.

     Let us lift our heads and allow ourselves to be counted. To be counted at Mt. Sinai and to be counted every day to live by the demands of Torah and to thus make this world whole and holy. The days of the Omer are done. We will no longer count the days. The only question left is if we can count on you?

     May we hear the call of Torah, and may we answer that call with love and with faith as we say….

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, February 26 2024 17 Adar I 5784