21 May 2015

Bemidbar-Shavuot 5775: True Colours

Bemidbar-Shavuot 5775: True Colours

A personality is a product of cultivation. The true self is what you have built from your nature, not just what your nature started out with.

 — David Brooks

Most of us appreciate being accepted for who we are, and we enjoy being in environments that tolerate and even celebrate our unique differences. But there is something important to consider when embracing one’s unique character. It is possible to hide behind the pride of individuality rather than develop our morality and integrity. We make great efforts at gaining knowledge, seeking entertainment, building social connections, and achieving financial stability, but equal if not greater effort should be made at refining our character. We have the ability to create better or worse versions of ourselves.

It is important to consider building oneself in this manner because it addresses our being rather than our external actions.  It is not primarily about what we know, do, admire, or how we interact, — although they are important outcomes — but about who we are. It touches on the nature of our inner character and the level of morality, integrity and consistency that we achieve in our minds, hearts and souls. Achieving the inner virtues like humility, reserve, faithfulness, truthfulness and benevolence as opposed to the outer ones, like career success, wealth, and skilled abilities, requires just as much work and attention, if not more.  The inner virtues directly enhance one’s self — they are the attributes for which we will be ultimately remembered as they form the core of our being.

The book that we begin this week, Bemidbar, is largely about a select tribe in Israel called Levi’im. The Levi’im were selected by G-d to serve in the Bet haMikdash, His holy temple, which gave the family somewhat of an aristocratic status. Yet, this aristocracy was not  set apart because of wealth or being ‘well born’, but because the tribe had shown an extraordinary commitment to integrity and truth[1]. They were noble of inner rather than outer virtue. Although the status did indeed continue to pass on genetically, the tribe was strongly chastised[2] when it failed to live up to its expected level of integrity. In stark contrast to traditional aristocracies, it was a class  and status that any human being on earth could access and achieve.

It is not the tribe of Levi alone, rather each and every person — anyone in the world, whose soul moves him to become noble and know G-d and walk straight in the manner that G-d made him rather than being distracted by the accounts and dealings that the majority of human beings seek, becomes holy of holies(Maimonides)[3]

 It is significant that the Levi’im also were entrusted with protecting and teaching Torah[4] for it is the Torah that is aimed mainly at providing a framework with which one can achieve such integrity.

When we achieve great inner virtue, not only do we enhance ourselves and the world, but we also become holy because we draw from G-d, the source of life, in order to achieve it.

Shavuot, the festival that celebrates the giving of Torah, is a time that we ask ourselves whether we wish to receive it and use it in our lives. We consider whether we will accept the gift offered to us by G-d that aims at guiding us to achieve our greatest selves[5]. For thirty centuries Torah has turned our attention to building our inner virtues and holding them paramount over the outer ones. In an age where the climb to success is encouraged over deepening the soul, the pause on Shavuot to focus on Torah’s call towards inner greatness is needed as much as, if not more than, ever before

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameah

Rabbi Joseph Dweck


Law and Lore

Zemirot VI

Nishmat Kol Hai

On Shabbat and Yom Tob there is a special addition to the zemirot which begins with the words ‘Nishmat kol hai tebarekh et shimkha…’ — ‘The soul of every living [individual] will bless Your name…’ This prayer is mentioned in the Talmud by R. Yohanan as Birkat haShir[6].

It is suggested[7] that Nishmat is actually made of three parts, each of which comes from a different source.

  • Nishmat kol hai until ve’ilu phinu – the Birkat haShir mentioned above.
  • ve’ilu phinu until ki khol peh lekha yodeh – mentioned by R Yohanan in the Talmud[8] as a prayer of thanks for rain.
  • ki khol peh lekha yodeh until ‘abdekha meshihekha – a section later added by the Ge’

In both Western and Eastern Sepharadi congregations, the hazan who will lead the services for Shaharit ascends to the teba at Nishmat. In the oriental tradition, the hazan chooses a tune for Nishmat that corresponds to the special tonal scale or makam that applies to that Shabbat. Nishmat is sung until the words Atah El. In some congregations the kahal sings together with the hazan, in others the hazan performs Nishmat alone.

S&P tradition is to sing Nishmat in the same tune each week and on Yom Tob. The congregation or the choir chants Nishmat in unison until anahnu modim.

There are three verses that are said before Nishmat:

Ki lAdonai haMelukha… (Tehillim, 22)

ve’Alu Moshi’im behar Siyon… (Obadia, 1)

veHaya lAdonai haMelukha… (Zekharia, 14)

In oriental congregations the hazan for shaharit begins with these verses as an introduction to the tonal scale or makam that he will use for the service. In S&P congregations these verses are said by the hazan who leads zemirot.


Parasha Perspectives

I  Bamidbar

 1a         Counting the number of names  (1:1-19)

Men, 20 and up, able for war counted. God names man from    each tribe to assist Moshe and Aharon.

1b         Reuven   46500    (1:20-21)

2          Shimon   59300    (1:22-23)

3          Gad        45650    (1:24-25)

4          Yehuda   74600    (1:26-27)

5          Yisakhar  54400    (1:28-29)

6          Zevulun              57400    (1:30-31)

7          Efrayim   40500    (1:32-33)

8          Menashe  32200    (1:34-35)

9          Binyamin 35400    (1:36-37)

10         Dan        62700    (1:38-39)

11         Asher      41500    (1:40-41)

12         Naftali    53400    (1:42-43)

13         Total number: 603550, excluding Levi.  (1:44-47)

14         Job of Levi tribe: Levi’im look after, camp around and carry the Mishkan (1:48-54)

15a       Arrangement of Camp: order of th march (2:1-9)

Eastside: Yehuda leads. Group contains Yisakhar and Zevulun. Total = 186400

15b       Southside: Reuven leads. Group contains Shimon and Gad. Total = 151450 (2:10-16)

15c       Levi in the middle. They camp like they journey – in formation (2:17)

15d       Westside: Efrayim leads. Group contains Menashe and Binyamin. Total = 108100 (2:18-24)

15e       Northside: Dan leads. Group contains Asher and Naftali. Total = 157600 (2:25-31)

16         Total number excluding Levi 603550. Everyone did as commanded  (2:32-34)

17         Descendants Aharon and Moshe: Nadav and Avihu dead, Elazar and Itamar to work (3:1-4)

18         Job of Tribe of Levi: work in Mishkan  (3:5-10)

19         Levi’im chosen over firstborn; firstborn belong to God because of ‘Egypt’ (3:11-13)

20a       Levi counted and given their jobs: Gershon 7500, westside (3:14-26)

20b       Qehat (8600, south) Merari (6200, north) Moshe, Aharon and sons (East).

2000 altogether! (3:27-39)

20c       Counting of firstborn: Men from one month. (Levi’im to replace firstborn) 22273 (3:40-43)

21         Levi in place of Reuven: 273 extra redeemed: 5 shekels each given to Aharon = 1365 shekels(3:44-51)

22         Job of Qehat: Count of 30-50year olds. Cover and carry ready wrapped Mishkan (4:1-16)

23         A plea for Qehat: Don’t die through negligence so only see stuff when wrapped (4:17-20)



[1]See Exodus, 32:25; Deut., 33:9; Numbers, 3:13.

[2] “Know, then, that I sent this charge to you that my covenant Levi should endure — said the Lord of Hosts!…I had with him a covenant of life and peace which I gave to him, and of reverence, and he revered me and stood in awe of My name…nothing perverse was on his lips; he served Me with complete loyalty and he held many back from iniquity…But you have turned away from that course: you have made many stumble…you have corrupted the covenant of the Levi’im…” (Malakhi, 2:4-8)

[3] Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Shemita veYobel,  13:13

[4] “Our father Yaakob taught all his children and set Levi aside and put him in charge to teach the way of G-d…and commanded his children that there should never cease a chosen [teacher] from the children of Levi…” Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Aboda Zara, 1:3. Cf. Deut., 33:9

[5] “To keep the commandments of G-d and His laws…for your good”. Deut., 10:13

[6] Birkat haShir is mentioned in the Mishna (Pesahim, 117b) as a prayer that is to be said after the hallel during the seder of Pesah. R Yohanan interprets Birkat haShir in the Talmud as being ‘Nishmat Kol Hai’.

[7] Cf. Mordekhi, Pesahim, 611

[8] Berakhot, 59b