The portion of Bemidbar is always read before the holiday of Shavuos. This fact is mentioned in the Tur and other halachic sources.
Certainly a rule in Torah connected to "the Season of the Giving of our Torah," has an important lesson for us. And if normally we must "live with the times," as the Alter Rebbe explained, (meaning the weekly portion), how much more so when the weekly portion is Bemidbar, which serves as a preparation for Mattan Torah (the giving of the Torah).
The Midrash relates:
Why was the Torah given in the wilderness? Because if it had been given to them in the promised land, the tribe in whose territory it was given would have said: "I have a prior claim to it." Consequently it was given in the wilderness, so that all should have an equal claim to it ... another reason why it was given in the wilderness: who preserves the Torah? He who makes himself like a wilderness and throws himself open to all ... So also are the words of the Torah free to all mankind...."
(Bemidbar Rabbah, 19:26, 1:7)
These reasons for Torah being given in the desert may be categorized in the following manner: (A) The article -- the Torah -- is free to all, and all have equal claim to it. Its being ownerless makes it property which can be acquired by anyone who diligently studies it. It then actually becomes "his Torah." For this reason he would also have the right to renounce his claim to the honor of Torah -- if he so wishes. Since it is his, he may forgo the honor due to him because of Torah.
If it were not "ownerless" we might ask whether every person had the right to study Torah. But in fact, not only may we study we are obliged to study. And, after first saying the blessing for Torah, one may learn and make the Torah his own.
The Torah which Moshe commanded us is the heritage of the congregation of Ya'akov.
Thus, because the article (Torah) is ownerless, he must strive to become the "owner" of Torah.
(B) From the aspect of the person -- the learner -- he must be as a wilderness which is thrown open to all. Then he can receive the "gift of Torah," and his studies will endure. This is what we mean when we mention at the end of the Amidah: "Let my soul be as dust to all. Open my heart to Your Torah...." True humility will engender an open heart for Torah.
Does this not sound strange? We know that the Torah was given on a mountain, and as Chassidus explains, this teaches us that we must effect the attribute of loftiness. Yet here we speak of humility?! The answer is that the preparation for Torah must be genuine humility, only then can the heart become a vessel to receive Torah.
Thus the Torah was given in the desert which expressed itself in the "article" and in the "person" -- and it forms a lesson which teaches us how to prepare for Mattan Torah.
There is an additional lesson to be garnered from today's reading section -- the sixth section of Bemidbar. We are told that Moshe was commanded to count the firstborn sons and to redeem them by exchanging them for the Levi'im. What is the focal point of this act? That even those who were not originally designated for a special role (the Levi'im) may assume that role. Originally the service in the Mishkan (Sanctuary) was to have been done by the firstborn -- and then the Levi'im and Kohanim came and took their place. This exchange was so complete that those who had originally been designated to serve in the Sanctuary were now free to pursue their own personal affairs.
This teaches us that one who by nature is ostensibly more attuned to the work of Zevulun, business and worldly matters may still turn to, and dedicate himself to G-dly pursuits, just as the tribe of Levi did. He can convert his essence to be devoted to holy work. The Rambam puts it this way:
Not only the tribe of Levi but also each and every individual of those who come into the world, whose spirit moves him and whose knowledge gives him understanding to set himself apart in order to stand before the L-rd, to serve Him, to worship Him ... such an individual is consecrated to the Holy of Hollies and his portion and inheritance shall be in the L-rd forever and evermore ... the same as He granted to the Kohanim and to the Levi'im.
(Laws Sabbatical and Jubilee Years 13:13)
Do you realize the emphasis in the Rambam -- Holy of Hollies -- the level not only of Kohanim, but also of the Kohen Gadol!
This thought can actually be related to Mattan Torah because just prior to giving the Torah G-d told the Jewish people:
You will be a kingdom of Kohanim and a Holy Nation to Me, (Shemos 19:6)
which the Midrash interprets to mean, a nation of "Chief Kohanim."
Thus, the eternal Torah teaches us that at all times, wherever a Jew may be, he has the potential to be one "... whose spirit moves him ... such an individual is consecrated to the Holy of Hollies." If so, certainly he should utilize the potential and "... stand before G-d to serve Him, to worship Him...." Surely the Holy One, Blessed be He, will assist him in this Divine service.
In today's Rambam portion we learn the Laws of Repose on a Festival. This halachah has a general connection with these days of preparation for Shavuos.
Among the three festivals, Shavuos is the second or middle holiday, which brings us to connect Shavuos with the "threefold" aspect of Mattan Torah (threefold Torah to threefold nation in the third month [cf. Shabbos 88a]). We may say that the middle "cord" is usually the third. Thus, Shavuos, being in between Pesach and Sukkos, serves as the third "cord."
Although Shavuos is usually associated with Yitzchok (Pesach -- Avraham, Sukkos -- Ya'akov), Chassidus does however attribute the central role to Yitzchok in certain cases -- in which case it evokes more powerful blessings.
For us, we may also glean the thought that the middle way is preferable, as the Rambam teaches:
The right way is the mean (middle) in each group of dispositions common to humanity: namely, that disposition which is equally distant from the two extremes in its class, not being nearer to one than to the other ... the mean between the extremes." (Laws of Ethics 1:4)
This is a general lesson from the laws of the holidays.
More specifically, in today's Rambam portion we learn the laws of "Eruv Tavshilin" -- "token mingling of the food." This subject has been discussed in the past at great length -- let it therefore suffice to mention just a few salient points.
In the Talmud and its commentaries we find two basic cause-reasons for Eruv Tavshilin: (A) It was established to protect the honor of Shabbos and (B) to protect the honor of Yom-Tov. Depending on these differences of motive, there will be slight differences of observances, e.g., if the food set aside as an Eruv must be kept until Shabbos, or if it may be eaten on the second day of Yom-Tov after all the preparations for Shabbos have been completed. [Note: for the full discussion see Likkutei Sichos Vol. 16 p. 183 ff.]
Now, the Alter Rebbe in his Shulchan Aruch quotes both reasons mentioned above, but the Rambam, in Laws of Repose on a Festival (6:1), brings only one: not to detract from the honor of the holiday. Consequently, the different halachic ramifications will become evident in comparing the different approaches, which we leave to the wise, "to add more wisdom."
There is however an important lesson and moral in Ahavas Yisroel (love of fellow Jew) to be learned from the laws of Eruv Tavshilin.
One of the practical applications of the mitzvah of Ahavas Yisroel is hospitality, which of course may be observed at all times, in all places and especially on Shabbos and Yom-Tov.
There is a unique emphasis on hospitality applied to Yom-Tov which is not found in Shabbos:
And while one eats and drinks himself, it is his duty to feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow and other poor and unfortunate people, for he who locks the door to his courtyard and eats and drinks with his wife and family, without giving anything to eat and drink to the poor and bitter in soul -- his meal is not a rejoicing in a Divine commandment, but a rejoicing in his own stomach. It is of such persons that Scripture says: "Their sacrifices shall be unto them as the bread of mourners, all that eat thereof shall be polluted...." Rejoicing of this kind is a disgrace to those who indulge in it, as Scripture says, "... and I will spread dung upon your faces, even the dung of your feasts...."
(Laws of Repose on a Festival 6:18)
This law applies only to Yom-Tov, but not to Shabbos.
This must be seriously contemplated and understood by the Jew to the point that, by his nature, he will realize that the feasts of the holidays will be true feasts only when the servants, the Levi, and the foreigner, orphan and widow of the cities join him at his table.
When Yom-Tov is Erev Shabbos, the regulation of Eruv Tavshilin adds another dimension to the holiday and to the mitzvah of hospitality. Even before Yom-Tov starts the Eruv reminds him that he must make preparations not only for Shabbos, but also for Yom-Tov -- as the halachah teaches us to prepare a good portion for Yom Tov and a good portion of Shabbos. Even more so, because he is already cooking some dishes for Shabbos, he will add something extra for Yom Tov and include what he needs for his guests. Thus the mitzvah of Ahavas Yisroel is enhanced by the Eruv Tavshilin.
This will elucidate a troublesome halachah. The Rambam writes:
It is permissible for one to set aside an Eruv on behalf of the residents of a whole city and its adjoining Shabbos limits, and on the next day announce that anyone who has not set aside his own Eruv of food dishes may rely on the one set aside in behalf of all.
(Laws of Repose on a Festival 6:7)
This is in fact the custom of Israel. After reciting the berochah (blessing) on the Eruv we say:
Through this it shall be permissible for us to bake, to cook, ... and do on the Festival all that is necessary for the Shabbos -- for us and for all of Israel who dwell in this city. (Siddur pg. 249)
There are many mitzvos in which we could include other Jews and free them of their obligation, why do we not find any other mitzvah in which we announce that we are doing it for all the Jews who live in the city?
Eruv Tavshilin enhances the mitzvah of the Ahavas Yisroel, so when one makes the Eruv he cannot be satisfied with himself, he must announce that he includes all the Jews of the town. Already on the eve of the holiday he has increased his love for his fellow Jew and it will be expressed even more so when the needy join him around his table on Yom-Tov.
This gives us a glimpse of another interpretation of the adage that the ordinances of the Rabbis are more precious than the words of the Torah. Through the Eruv, a rabbinic enactment, we enhance Ahavas Yisroel -- a Torah mitzvah.
In this we see a special emphasis for the women. Since they are the ones who prepare the meals of the festival and thereby prepare the Eruv, they are the ones who enhance the mitzvah of Ahavas Yisroel.
Having spoken about the mitzvah of hospitality it is appropriate to mention something in relation to tzedakah and Acts of Kindness.
The mitzvah of contributing money to tzedakah applies in all places and every day. Therefore, on the eve of Shabbos and Yom-Tov one should donate a greater sum of money to compensate for the Shabbos or holiday when he will not be able to give.
Consequently, when Shabbos is followed by two days of Shavuos the tzedakah must be proportionally more to cover all the days.
There is also an additional unique point in relation to Shavuos. We know the query, "What was accomplished at Mattan Torah if the Patriarchs already fulfilled the Torah -- even before it was given?" As the Gemara says:
Avraham was an Elder who studied in a yeshivah and our ancestors were never left without a yeshivah. In Egypt they had yeshivah. (Yoma 82b)
If so, what is the big deal about Mattan Torah?
The answer is, as explained in the Midrash, that there had been a decree prohibiting the lofty beings from descending and the nether beings from ascending, but at Mattan Torah this was nullified. G-d Himself "came down" to Mt. Sinai and Moshe was called "up" to the summit. This introduced the potential for the mundane to be purified and raised on high. In simple terms all Torah and observance before Mattan Torah was theoretical and ethereal. When the Torah was given, we received the potential and mission to deal with material objects and rectify them.
In this realm the mitzvah of tzedakah stands out above the rest. As the Alter Rebbe explains in Tanya:
Our Rabbis of blessed memory, so strongly emphasized the virtue of charity, declaring that "It balances all the other commandments," ... because it is the core of the precepts of action and surpasses them all. For all [precepts] are only intended to elevate the vital soul to G-d.... Hence you can find no commandment in which the Vital soul is clothed to the same extent as in the commandment of charity: ... surely all the strength of his Vital soul is embodied in the execution of his work or occupation by which he earned the money; when he gives it for charity, his whole Vital soul ascends to G-d ... hence he is giving his soul's life to G-d. (Tanya ch. 37)
Thus, in these preparatory days before Mattan Torah we must increase tzedakah, which embodies the idea of taking the physical and making it spiritual.
Therefore, everyone should increase their contributions to tzedakah tomorrow in a proportion relative to Shabbos and two days of Yom Tov of Shavuos.
We will therefore also conclude this farbrengen with the mitzvah of tzedakah and I will give everyone a dollar bill and make them messengers to fulfill the mitzvah and certainly everyone will add a bit of their own.
Through the mitzvah of tzedakah may we merit the redemption which will come with a cheerful countenance just as we give the tzedakah with a cheerful countenance.
This leads to another subject. Speaking of the phrase "cheerful countenance" we are amazed that it was Shammai who taught: "... and receive every person with a cheerful countenance" (Avos 1:15).
Is this the same Shammai who chased away the potential gerim (converts), in each case with a very uncheerful countenance! (cf. Shabbos 31a) How can we interpret his action vis-a-vis his words?
We may say however, that Shammai's rejection caused them to go Hillel, as a result of which they were conditioned to accept Torah through the dual approach of Hillel and Shammai, "Turn from bad and do good." Thus there was an indirect, "cheerful countenance," to bring them to the higher level of attaining both paths -- positive and negative commandments -- represented by the two first utterances of the Ten Commandments: "Anochi" -- "I am G-d" and "You shall have no other...."