Bamidbar-Shavuos Learning to Live Positively

A great post from Rabbi Noson Weisz on Aish

We invariably read Parshat Bamidbar on the Shabbat before Shavuot, the anniversary of our meeting with God at Sinai, the holiday that celebrates the renewal of the giving/receiving of the Torah. Jewish tradition teaches that the spiritual potential of a week derives from the preceding Shabbat. It is from the Shabbat of Bamidbar that we draw the spiritual energy to dedicate ourselves to receiving the Torah afresh.


The commentators find a very strong connection between the Parsha and the occasion. Judaism teaches that creation was conditional on the acceptance of the Torah [see Rashi (Genesis 1:31)]. It also teaches that the Torah could only be given to a nation. [Nachmanides, Devarim 33:5] The fully formed Jewish nation is described for the first time in the Torah in Bamidbar. Our Parsha contains a full census and describes the layout of the Jewish encampment around the Tabernacle. This arrangement of the Jewish people, where everyone is allocated his own distinct place within the commonwealth and yet coexists with all fellow Jews in a state of harmony and co-operation, is a necessary pre-condition to the acceptance of the Torah. [Ohr Hachaim, Exodus 19:2]

We have dealt with this correlation between social harmony and spiritual preparedness to receive the Torah in a previous essay, [see, a previous essay on Bamidbar] but much remains to be explored. We shall attempt to delve somewhat deeper into the significance of social unity in this essay.


Let us begin by studying the theoretical framework that underlies all social unity, the social contracts around which all social interactions are organized. It is strikingly apparent that the contractual foundation of the Jewish nation represents a marked departure from our ordinary understanding of the way that nations are formed.

Classical political theory teaches that societies are organized for the benefit of individuals. If we all lived alone or in mated pairs, we would be forced to worry about providing our own food, clothing and shelter. We would be compelled to organize our own security arrangements and to set up some structure for educating our children. This is obviously an impossibly heavy load for any individual or human pair or even a small tribe to carry. Consequently human beings have arranged themselves into large groups or nations.

The best indication that we have all internalized this theory of social integration is President Kennedy’s classic exhortation, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask rather what you can do for your country.” This famous remark was prompted by the recognition that we human beings are always looking for what our society can do for us; we fully understand that the services and the quality of life that society is able to provide are its raison d’etre.

This classic social contract theory has been somewhat revised to accommodate the obvious fact that man is a social creature who prefers to live in groups simply because he loves company quite apart from the practical considerations involved. But the evolutionists maintain that this built in longing for companionship is the effect of the biological imprinting of the social contract onto the human gene; nature’s method of compelling man to do the sensible thing to ensure his survival and join a group.

Both socially and biologically the existence of social co-operation is based on the fact that society is a powerful survival tool. The evolutionary pressures that have turned man into a social animal are those that are outlined by classic social contract theory. If individual man were in possession of the inputs of his survival even were he to live in isolation, there would be no other purpose in joining a group except for entertainment, and evolutionary pressures would not have fashioned man into a social being.


The social contract presented by the Torah is a million light years away from this approach. The Torah informs us that the Jews formed themselves into a nation to establish God as their King. As the Midrash points out: [Yalkut, Mishlei, 941], there is no such thing as a king without a kingdom. In order for God, who is called the King of the Universe, to assume the mantle of His royal office, He needed a nation to rule over, and it is the Jewish people who agreed to satisfy this Divine need by forming themselves into a nation under the rule of God. The Jews formally founded their nation by signing the covenant at Sinai and accepting God’s law, thus enabling God to don the mantle of royalty over the newly formed Jewish nation.

This Midrash paints the portrait of a society that is the diametric opposite of the one described by classic social contract theory. The Jewish nation was not formed for the benefit of the Jewish people at all. We organized ourselves into a distinct nation to benefit God! This is not to say that we do not benefit from this arrangement. If you do God a favor, it is quite reasonable to expect that He will respond in kind. This expectation does not detract from the founding spirit of unselfishness on which the Jewish commonwealth stands. God’s installation as King over the Jewish nation had to be a sincere gesture in order to achieve the desired effect and elicit Divine gratitude.

It is quite clear that the Torah method of forming societies involves giving rather than taking. The purpose of social organization is to give. In the society formed by secular theory we must also be prepared to give in order to succeed. But the purpose of the enterprise is to take. To appreciate the full ramifications of this difference we must next examine the idea of purpose in depth.


As a means of attempting to comprehend the purpose of secular human activity in general, let us look at the life of a medical practitioner, John. John goes to school for many years in order to learn medicine. This is certainly a purposeful activity, and one that requires much planning and dedication. Most of us would judge it to be highly worthwhile. The effort produces worthwhile results; John becomes competent to practice medicine, which is also a highly purposeful activity as it allows John to heal the sick. Even after completing this scrutiny of John’s entire professional life, the most critical observer would be compelled to concede that it is both purposeful and productive.

If we analyze the factor that establishes the productivity of John’s life as being so self-evident, it is clearly the fact that John is competent and presumably successful at healing the sick. But suppose that illness were eliminated and there was no need to heal the sick, or suppose that John never managed to heal anyone during all his years of practice, then in retrospect, there would be no purpose at all in anything John learned or did, and the working part of John’s life would have been futile. He would have spent a large part of his life totally wasting his time.

The same can be said about all human activity that is aimed in some way at reshaping the world to make it more user- friendly. All these sorts of activities are purposeless in themselves. We engage in them because we need their results. If there were another way of obtaining the same results, we ourselves would abandon the activities designed to produce these results as a waste of our precious time. This applies not only to major projects requiring planning, investment and self-discipline such as learning a profession or working at a career but even to mundane activities such as eating or sleeping. If we could find another way to obtain the rest or nourishment our bodies demand, we would never eat or sleep except for enjoyment.


We are seldom interested in the activities in which we invest most of our talents and energies per se. All our purposeful activities are undertaken as a means to an end. In the world of nature, there are only two sorts of activities that are not undertaken to eliminate some problem:

(1) Obtaining pleasure. It seems obvious that we seek pleasure for its own sake not as a means of obtaining something else. Let us study pleasure as a commodity that can invest life with purpose. The use of the word ‘obtaining’ rather than ‘pursuing’ in the introduction was quite deliberate. A vacation is a pleasure. Preparing for it is only a means to an end. We would presumably cheerfully abandon making reservations, doing the shopping etc. if we could get our vacation without them. It is experiencing pure pleasure that we are suggesting as a possible purpose, rather than the pursuit of pleasure.

But even pure distilled pleasure, a commodity that we no doubt very much desire, cannot serve as a worthy candidate for investing life with meaning. Without minimizing the importance of satisfying one’s desires, experiencing pleasure is rarely accepted by intelligent people as an acceptable goal for life. Most thinking people consider the pursuit of pleasure unimportant. Experiencing a threshold amount of pleasure is no doubt essential for the maintenance of psychological health and balance, but viewed in this light, pleasure is also reduced to a means rather than an end.

(2) That leaves us with the second exception, the area of relationships. Activities that are undertaken to build relationships are not merely a means to an end but are purposeful per se. A relationship strengthening activity is itself a part of the relationship that it builds. A heart to heart talk between friends not only brings them closer but serves simultaneously as the best expression of their newfound nearness. Relationships are certainly important. However they also cannot be used as a means of investing life itself with purpose. One of the most banal teachings of folk wisdom is that you cannot live for others.

Inasmuch as secular societies are created as the best means of supplying their members with their individual physical and social needs, social organization is no more purposeful than the areas of life it is designed to satisfy. If the natural world encompasses all of reality, we are condemned to spending the vast majority of our lives doing things that we would rather not have to do at all, or other things that we do not consider sufficiently important to justify living. What a pitiful world we live in!


In fact the only thing that we know of that is truly valuable and worthwhile in and of itself and could therefore provide a suitable purpose for life is life itself. We engage in all other activities to support being alive. We consume life for the sake of living. The Talmud remarks on this phenomenon; look at these crazy Babylonians who eat bread so that they will be able to eat bread again. (Bezah, 16a)

If we could possibly find an activity that not only produces more life than it consumes but is itself a manifestation of that new life, we could invest our lives with purpose according to any standard by pursuing it. Our problem is that there is simply no such phenomenon in the reality encompassed by the natural world. Fortunately the natural world is not all there is to reality, and there is such an activity available. It is called a Mitzvah.

The performance of a Mitzvah solves no worldly problem and fills no natural void. It is legitimate to ask; in light of this apparent irrelevancy, why does God ask us to perform Mitzvot? The common answer; so that He could reward us for their performance, is entirely unacceptable in light of what we have already demonstrated.

If this view were correct, Mitzvot are as shallow as any other human activity; they are really a waste of time in themselves and are only valuable as a means to an end. No one needs the activity of the Mitzvah itself and the only purpose of engaging in the performance of mitzvot is the valuable good that can be obtained through their performance. As in all other goods, if we were able to attain them without having to reshape the world, the activity would be a waste of time.

Couldn’t God come up with a world where there was something worthwhile to do? It’s one thing to be forced to accept a purposeless life in a secular universe. No one planned or created such a universe and there is no one to criticize for its inadequacies and flaws. But surely an intelligent Creator could have come up with something better.

The truth is that He did.


A person should not say, “I will fulfill the mitzvot… in order to receive all the blessings … or in order to merit the life to come.” Or “I will separate myself from all the sins … so that I will be saved from all the curses…or so that my soul will not be cut off from the life of the world to come.”

It is not fitting to serve God in this manner. A person whose service is motivated by these factors is considered one who serves out of fear. He is not on the level of the prophets or of the wise. The ones who serve God in this manner are…minors. They are trained to serve God out of fear until their knowledge increases and they serve out of love.

One who serves God out of love occupies himself in the Torah and the mitzvot and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive; not because of fear that evil will occur, nor in order to acquire benefit. Rather he does what is true because it is true, and ultimately, good will come out of it… (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, Ch. 10, 1-2)

Maimonides appears to be contradicting himself. First he tells us that one should not perform the Mitzvot because of the rewards and punishments they bring but because of their essential ‘truth’. Almost in the same breath he instructs the person who performs the Mitzvot because of their truth to bear in mind that the good is sure to follow. What does this mean? If I bear in mind that the good is sure to follow, doesn’t that automatically mean that I perform the Mitzvah to obtain the good?

The things we have learned put the answer in our grasp. The Mitzvot don’t bring the good as a means to an end; the Mitzvot themselves are the good that follows!

Step by step.

Maimonides recounts two manifestations of serving God out of fear. One is obvious; the avoidance of sins because of the fear of their dire consequences, but the performance of good deeds for the sake of reward is also defined by Maimonides as serving God out of fear. Apparently fear has a broader definition than we generally assign to it.

In terms of our argument, we are able to explain this well; an act of Divine service that is undertaken as a means to an end is not an act of ‘service’ at all. It demonstrates that the person who performs that act would rather not serve God at all. If he could discover another way to get to the world to come or to avoid the fires of hell, he would gladly take the alternative route. Under the circumstances, as the only way to obtain the reward that he desires involves serving God, he will serve God.

In a broad sense, anything done with the attitude that it is the lesser of two evils can be classified as being based on fear. The person who serves God because he regards Divine service as an unfortunate necessity of life is always focused on the negative. Calculation of his options leads him to the conclusion that not serving God is either less advantageous or downright terrifying. The attitude underlying such service is fear and avoidance.

This attitude reflects a profound misunderstanding of what Divine service is all about. The true reward of Divine service is everlasting life. Everlasting life is not a commodity that can be taken off some shelf and distributed to the deserving; it is a function of connecting to God, the source of life. The connection is not established through Divine service as a means to an end; it is forged by the performance of the mitzvot themselves. Doing a mitzvah is connecting to God by definition. The purpose of doing a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself. Maimonides explains that the person who understands this will always serve God out of love. Doing anything for its own sake is described as loving it.


The most profound expression of this idea is in the area of inter personal relations. More than fifty percent of the Ten Commandments [the commandment to honor one’s parents swings the balance] concern relations between people. This sets the pattern for the entirety of the 613 commandments. How does this reflect the idea that a mitzvah is itself the connection to God? One can readily perceive how the laying of phylacteries is an expression of the human-Divine connection, but how is this bond manifest in giving my fellow Jew a loan?

Let us remember that the Jewish social contract was signed to establish God as the King of Israel. Every mitzvah is a detail in the mosaic of our relationship with God. If we equate this relationship with life, every mitzvah is one of life’s details. But even the tiniest step that leads to the building of the Jewish commonwealth can never be classified as a mere detail. The relationship with God of every Jewish individual is based on his membership in the Jewish commonwealth, which is founded on the idea of establishing God as the God/King of Israel. As we declare in the holy words of the Shema, “Hear, O Israel: YHVH is our God, YHVH, the One and Only.” Establishing or strengthening Israel as a nation is itself the fullest embrace of God we are capable of, and must be equated in the most profound sense with the entire panorama of existence.

Building and strengthening the social cohesion among the Jewish people is identical to building the relationship of the Jewish people with God. The Jewish people exist in the world for no other purpose than to declare God their king. The lack of cohesion among Jews is automatically expressed in a lack of cohesion of the Jewish people with God. The contrary is also true. When we are truly united, God is automatically among us. We are all inspired to be fully committed to Torah, because we all experience the surge of life in God’s Almighty embrace.


On Shavuot we read the story of Ruth. As the day is dedicated to the acceptance of the Torah, we study the account of the highest form this acceptance can adopt. If we analyze the basis of Ruth’s connecting herself to God, it is clear that her prime motivation was her determination to aid and support her mother-in-law Naomi, a person she loved and admired and could not bear to be separated from. The love of Jews and the love of God are the flip sides of a single coin. Building and strengthening the Jewish people is equivalent to establishing the kingdom of God. The flip side of God’s kingdom is Jewish sovereignty. The ultimate fruit of Ruth’s act of dedication was the birth of David, the king of Israel whose great love of God inspired the Book of Psalms read by all humanity.

Our ideological divides prevent us from being able to fully unite around the banner of Torah at this time in Jewish history. But there is another route available to the same destination and we could all travel down this road if we chose. We could resolve to live in peace and harmony with all our fellow Jews by focusing on the positive in each other and reach the same point of total unity with God and total acceptance of His Torah.