Bamidbar & Shavuos ; Time v Space
As the saying goes, the best place to start is always the beginning; and here is no exception. Let us ponder over a very interesting question in the very first pasuk in sedra (and chumash!) Bamidbar. It says “HaShem spoke to Moshe in the Sinai desert in the Ohel Moed on the first of the second month of the 2nd year of the Exodus saying.” Now something very intriguing occurs here; when referring to the location of events we go from the least specific (desert) to the most specific (Ohel Moed). But when referring to time we do it the other way round; first the most specific (first day) and later the least specific (2nd year). Why this discrepancy? (Clever question, eh! - not my question as I’m sure you guessed!) Let’s try and connect this to Shavuos in suggesting an answer…
The gemarra (psachim 68b) tells of Rav Yosef, who on Shavuos used to eat a special type of meat (a calf) in gratitude for having received the Torah. Basic question; surely the best way to show gratitude for having received the Torah is to sit down and learn it? Furthermore, Shavuos sees all the rules of korbanos broken; the shtei halecehm korban brought contains honey (normally forbidden) and has chametz in it; again normally forbidden. Why is Shavuos different? And if we cast our minds back to Pesach where it has been said many a time that we remove chametz because it symbolises haughtiness; so what in the world is it doing on the mizbeyach on Shavuos - Torah is supposed to connect with humble people (Taanis 7a) - what’s pride there for?
The answer is based on a massively central Rashi (devarim 6;5) on the Shema: Rashi says that ’love HaShem…with all your heart’ means with both your yetzers ie your yetzer tov & yetzer hara. The point is that everything can be used for the good - even the yetzer hara can be used to propel someone in the correct direction; it must just be used properly. Thus we are told that when one comes home on Friday night after Shul, if one arrives to ’lit candles, a laid table, and set beds’ then the evil angel will be forced to answer a bracha given to you by the good angel (shabbes 119b); ie even a ’bad angel’s’ power can be used positively. And this is Shavuos.
There is one level called prisha (separating oneself from materialistic pleasures) - but a higher level is being able to involve oneself in them but in order to use them to bring oneself closer to HaShem. This is why a nazir (as we’ll see in next week’s sedra) is on the one hand called holy (because he separates himself from physical things) but on the other hand he brings a sin offering - because in abstaining from wine he missed the opportunity to get close to HaShem via the wine. Shavuos is the ability to use every aspect of one’s life to connect to HaShem. Therefore Rav Yosef specifically used a calf (as in the bris bein habesarim) to show that every aspect of one’s life can be used to connect, not just the study of Torah. And so too do we break all the korbanos rules on Shavuos and even use chametz because that’s just the point; we manipulate even the pride to elevate ourselves. (We even say a bracha after the lowly act of going to the toilet in a great demonstration of this point.)
Let’s return to the initial question re. time and space at the start of the sedra and examine these 2 dimensions. Rav Munk notes something very deep about the commandment not to build the Mishkan on Shabbat. He says that the mishkan symbolises the dimension of space, whilst Shabbat is that of time. And, he continues, we see from here that time is greater than space, for Shabbat (time) overrides the Mishkan (space) - because space is very much part of this world and in human hands - we can change space and move things round, fill space, make more space etc. But we cannot change time - that is in HaShem’s Hands so to speak. Thus, HaShem’s Time is more perfect and holy, and beats humans’ space. Using this, one can suggest that the opening pasuk is telling us something very potent about how to use time and space: Space we can change, so our aim is to mould something unholy to something holy (change a desert to an Ohel Moed). But time is out of our control; the most we can do with it is connect the present to a bigger picture (as in the Omer) - so with time, the most specific thing (the 1st day) is mentioned first, then the larger picture (2nd month and Yetzias Mitzrayim). This would also explain why the less active terms ’shamor and zachor’ are used regarding Shabbat (because it’s time and out of our hands) whilst the Mishkan sees an active role both in its building and the formations of camping around it. Again, it’s the theme of being able to use everything (albeit in different ways) to elevate oneself.
In fact, it seems that this theme of time and space continues across the sedra; and not only in the encampment formations of the Bnei Yisrael, which evidently touches upon the space dimension. I mean later in the sedra (perek 3) when the Levites replace the firstborns as those who would work in the Mishkan. Now the firstborns re obviously interlinked with time; what’s less obvious is the link between the Leviim and space; well, firstly Levi’s name himself is based on space - (bereishis 29;34) Leah says ’now my husband will accompany me (so called him Levi)’ ie be in the same space as me. And later Yaakov’s curse to Levi is also based upon space; (bereishis 49;7) that his tribe will be scattered amongst Israel. And, as Rashi explains (bamidbar 3;12) that it was because of the Sin of the golden calf, which the firstborns took part in but the Levites did not, that the Levites replaced the firstborns in the Service of HaShem in the Mishkan.
But two questions remain; Firstly if time is greater than space, why should Leviim replace the firstborns - stick with the holier dimension? And what did the sin of the golden calf have to do exactly to change this?
The Beis Halevi says that the Jews’ intention in building the golden calf was for good purposes - to act as a way to get to HaShem. The only sin was that they did it without having been commanded to make such a thing. Thus, it was human involvement for the negative. And the mistake which led to the calf was the miscalculation of Moshe’s return - a mistake of time. Consequently, the kappara had to be human involvement for the good, and the dimension of space - the mishkan and the Leviim. But still isn’t the dimension of time more holy though? Yes it is, but it is exactly because the dimension of space is the ‘human’ dimension (the Maharal says that 4 is the Olam Hazeh number - 4 seasons, 4 directions, etc and its letter is a Daled, which looks like length and width because space is the focal point of this world), and that it’s lower spiritually that gives it the most potential power when it is turned around and used positively. This is why the Torah was given to humans and not angels (gemmara shabbes 88b) - because we can do wrong, and so when we do right it means so much more; but angels do not have that freewill to do wrong; so doing the right thing for them is no big deal. So yes, from a practical perspective time beats space, but in terms of potential, space can rise above time; as it did in the Levites’ serving in the Mishkan.
This fact that HaShem Wants (so to speak) our involvement in Torah is also seen in the maxim which we say regarding our Sages’ disputes ’these and these are both the words of HaShem.’ In fact, you can have one opinion saying assur and the other muttar and they are both called ’the words of HaShem’ - but surely only one got it right; either this is muttar or not?? The point is HaShem wants the dispute itself because He Wants our involvement in Torah; hence the gemarra (eiruvin) saying ’these and these are both the words of HaShem but Halacha is like Beis Hillel’ - because the fact that we pasken halacha in accordance with one opinion does not negate the fact that the machlokes in itself is positive and desired.
Please G-D may we find chelkeinu betoratecha - our individual parts on Torah which we are here to bring out so that the Torah is displayed in full,

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