Light from the Sidra

Bamidbar ('In the wilderness') 22nd May 2015. 27th Sivan 5775

Torah: Numbers 1:1-4:20. Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22(1:10-2:20).

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)


Shavuot: a tale of two mountains

In 1898, fourteen years before the maiden voyage of the Titanic, a largely forgotten author called Morgan Robertson published Futility, or The Wreck of the Titan. In the book, Robertson described the Titan as ‘the largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men… equal to that of a first class hotel’ and, ‘unsinkable.’ The similarities between the fictional Titan and the real-life Titanic are remarkable. Both ships were British-owned steel vessels around 800 feet long and sank after hitting icebergs 400 miles from Newfoundland around midnight in April, and both vessels had too few lifeboats to accommodate all passengers. The coincidences between the fictional Titan and the true-life Titanic are almost prophetic but, unlike the ancient Hebrew prophets, Robertson made no claim to have been guided by divine revelation.

Israel’s prophets claimed that God had spoken to the Jewish people at various times and in different ways, rebuking them for their sins but also encouraging them to hope for a future redemption through the Messiah. In some cases the pattern for Messiah’s redemption was revealed in Israel’s festivals. For example, the Sages recognised that Pesach was the foreshadowing of an even greater redemption that Messiah would accomplish. Shavuot, too, points to Messiah. Although Shavuot lasts only one day, it is so important that the men of Israel were commanded to travel to Jerusalem annually to celebrate it. According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, in the period of the Second Temple up to three million Jews from around the ancient world gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals.

For the Jewish people, Shavuot is Zeman Matan Torateinu, ‘the season of the giving of our Torah’ which, they say, took place at Mount Sinai. According to Exodus, the events at Sinai were accompanied by fire on the mountain, by the sound of a heavenly shofar and by the proclamation of the Ten Commandments, the first of which was that Israel should have no other god beside HASHEM who had redeemed them from slavery to the Egyptians to be his bride. According to Exodus 32, however, while Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the tablets of the law, the people below were worshipping a calf made of gold: they were committing spiritual adultery. As a result, after Moses came down from the mountain, 3,000 Israelites were put to death, which was the prescribed punishment for adultery. What a start to the marriage of HASHEM and Israel!

Leap forward 1,400 years to the celebration of Shavuot on a mountain. The mountain is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It’s around 9.00am and Jewish men from every nation to which they had been scattered are gathered in the temple and Exodus 19 is being read: ‘Now mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly. And when the voice of the horn waxed louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice.’

Suddenly, miraculous phenomena begin to take place that bear remarkable similarities to those at Sinai. According to the rabbis, the world was divided into seventy nations and in tractate Shabbat 88b, the Talmud states, ‘Every single word that went forth from the Omnipotent was split up into seventy languages for the nations of the world.’ Chapter 2 of The Acts of the Apostles records that at Shavuot 33CE, the sound of a great wind – reminiscent of the sound of the shofar at Sinai – was heard though the temple courts and tongues of flame – a reminder of the fire at Sinai – appeared over a group of young disciples of Jesus of Nazareth who began praising HASHEM in the languages of the nations represented. Those who recognised the languages were astonished because the disciples were speaking with Galilean accents.

Kefa, the leader of the disciples, stood up and addressed the crowd, pointed out that what they were seeing and hearing was the fulfilment of a 700 year-old prophecy found in Joel 3:1-5: ‘It shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions; And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out My spirit… And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the LORD shall be delivered…’

Many of those in the temple, notably the inhabitants of Jerusalem, Judea and Galilee, and some of the wealthier visiting Jews would have been present two months previously at the festival of Pesach. They had heard the young rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, teach in the temple courts. They had witnessed the temple authorities, the Scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees attempt to trip him with trick questions, only to have to back down in the face of his wisdom and knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. A couple of days before the feast, he mysteriously disappeared and was crucified by Romans on the eve of Passover. The crowd would also recall that three days after his death there were rumours that the tomb of Jesus was found empty.

Now, Kefa proclaimed that Jesus was crucified because the chief priests had secretly handed him over to the pagan Romans to be crucified. But, said Kefa, God was at work behind the scenes. The death of Jesus had been part of God’s plan for the salvation of Israel and the nations. Psalm 16 foretold the resurrection of Jesus and if his hearers repented of their sins and called on the name of the Lord Jesus, they would be saved. That day, 3,000 Jews and proselytes believed and, in the words of Joel, were ‘delivered’ from the guilt of their sins and gained eternal life. At Mount Sinai, 3,000 Israelites died; 1,400 years later at Mount Zion, 3,000 were given new life.

At the festival this year, ask yourself where you stand. Do you know your sins are forgiven? Do you have the assurance that if you died today you would immediately go to Gan Eden? No? Then hear the final words of Kefa he spoke to the people of Israel in the temple at Shavuot 1,982 years ago: ‘Change your ways, every one of you, and be immersed in the name of Yeshua the Messiah for the forgiveness of sins; and you will receive the gift of the Ruakh Kodesh. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are far off, even as many as the Everpresent Lord, our God, will call to Himself.’

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