We always read Parshas Bamidbar before Shavuos. A number of reasons are given for this. The Bais Avrohom of Slonim explains that the main prerequisite for Kabbolas HaTorah is the mitzvah of v’ahavta lereiacha kamocha. As Hillel told the gentile who wanted to become a ger while standing on one foot, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. The rest is explanation; go ahead and learn.” In Parshas Bamidbar, Klal Yisroel was counted, and when they come together to be counted, they’re being unified as one unit. Therefore, it is appropriate for Parshas Bamidbar to come before the Yom Tov of Kabbolas HaTorah.
In a similar vein, the Chida says that the gematria of the words “b’Midbar Sinai” equals to that of “bashalom.” Unity amongst Klal Yisroel was a prerequisite to Kabbolas HaTorah, as we know that Klal Yisroel accepted the Torah k’ish echad b’lev echad. Thus, “Parshas B’Midbar Sinai” precedes Matan Torah to remind us of the importance of shalom with regard to Kabbolas HaTorah.
The sefer Chamudei Tzvi, written by Rav Hersh Yair, with haskamos from the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Aharon Kotler, and the Boyaner Rebbe, brings a vort that he heard from Rav Yissochor Dov of Belz. The Belzer Rebbe said that Har Sinai is called Midbar Ha’amim (Yechezkel 20:35). Rashi (Bamidbar 34:3) says that it is called so because a number of gentile nations lived near Har Sinai. Based on a Zohar, seforim explain that the term Midbar Ha’amim alludes to the name that Chazal gave to chutz la’aretz, “Eretz Ha’amim.” The connotation is that Har Sinai was an area that had been sullied by the actions of the goyim who lived there.
The message is that Hashem gave us the Torah in a place of tumas Eretz Ha’amim for a reason. The time would eventually come when Klal Yisroel would go into golus among the goyim. At that time, we might be tempted to think that the Torah was only meant to be kept in Eretz Yisroel, amongst Klal Yisroel, in a makom of kedusha. Therefore, Hashem gave us the Torah in a place of Midbar Ha’amim so that we will know from the first moment that kiyum haTorah is our responsibility no matter where we find ourselves.
The sefer Chayei Tzvi adds that this is another reason why we read Bamidbar before Shavuos. This reminds us that we received the Torah in the midbar, a place of tumas Eretz Ha’amim, to drive home this principle that Torah and mitzvos are not relegated to being followed only in a place that’s spiritually conducive.
A group of ten bochurim, Gerrer chassidim, who learned together in the Gerrer shtiebel in Lodz, Poland, were charged by the Nazis, yemach shemom, with “unlawful assembly,” an accusation carrying the charge of rebellion. They were thrown into jail, separated from each other, each one placed in a cell together with a group of ruthless, savage, repulsive, and vile Polish criminals.
One of the bochurim was a boy named Leibel Hakohein Rosenblum, who was a great-nephew of the Sefas Emes and a descendant of Rav Shloime of Radomsk. Reb Leibel passed away some twenty years ago and he related the following story before he died.
The boys suffered terribly during the eight weeks in the Nazi jail. They were alone, isolated and afraid for their lives. They refused to eat any treife food, and thus were often on the verge of starvation, having eaten only a fraction of the inadequate prison fare. But worst of all, he said, was the torture of living together with those repulsive Poles. The way those men behaved, the way they talked, made life in the jail a horrifying and wretched existence.
One day, the Nazis dragged the starving and worn-out Leibel to an interrogation room. Leibel looked up and saw that there was another such room on the other side of the hall and a fellow member of his “chevrah” was standing there. When the bochur saw Leibel, he screamed towards him, “Dinstag tal umotor!” (On Tuesday, we start saying v’sein tal umotor!)
Leibel said that those three words encompassed an entire world for him. Those three words cradled within them many years of ameilus and spiritual growth. With that declaration, his friend was telling him, “Leibel! Nothing different here! Does it seem like our world has ended? Do we have any idea if we will be alive tomorrow? Yes, our world has been turned upside down by the Nazi resha’im, and the ground we stand on is a burning furnace. We are being paraded into an interrogation by the Nazi murderous guards. But don’t forget: Dinstag tal umotor! From our point of view, we will continue serving Hashem to the best of our ability. We will daven with kavanah and dveikus as we’ve done in the past.”
My brother, Rav Elimelech, told me that, similarly, the reason the Torah does not openly state the date of Matan Torah is in order to hint to us that kiyum haTorah is not relegated to a specific time. Rav Elimelech, who lives in Eretz Yisroel and gives shiurim during the summer at Camp Agudah, said that he went to Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman for advice before he first went to the United States for the first time during the summer (that first summer, he was going to be in Camp Ohr Shraga).
Rav Shteinman took Rav Elimelech’s hand to say shalom and continued holding it while listening to the question. He explained that he was asking if he should travel to America for the summer months to deliver shiurim in a learning camp. Rav Shteinman asked him how many hours per day the boys learn. He answered that they learn seven hours a day. Upon hearing this, Rav Shteinman exclaimed, “Zibin sho’oh ah tog bein hazemanim? Gait! Seven hours a day during bein hazemanim? Go!” And he pushed Rav Elimelech’s hand as if to encourage and propel him forward.
I would like to say a word about a tzaddik who was my pediatrician forty years ago. In the 1980s, Dr. Eli Eilenberg, now in Lakewood, practiced on East 19th Street in Flatbush. Every visit to Dr. Eilenberg was an uplifting experience. I could not have been more than three or four years old when my mother brought me to his office. He would look through the otoscope into my ear and say with incredible warmth and charm, “Inside your ear, I see a tzaddik sitting by a table with a candle burning and he is learning Torah.” I believed it then and tend to believe that that is exactly what he saw in all the Jewish children whom he cared for. The smile, the sweetness and the warmth! And most of all, Torah and mitzvos everywhere.
While working on this column, I heard that Dr. Eilenberg, Elimelech ben Chana Yehudis, needs a refuah sheleimah. Halevai, he should come back stronger than ever and bring gezunt and healing to Jewish children ad bias hagoel.
Much of what I wrote in this article is from the sefer Asifas Amarim on Parshas Bamidbar.