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Parshat Bamidbar – Combining the Spiritual with the Physical

Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )

Shavuot is described as the time of the Giving of the Torah. Why isn’t it called the time of the Receiving of the Torah?

One reason given is that the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments, which were given on Shavuot, were eventually destroyed during the sin of the Golden Calf; the second tablets that we have were given on Yom Kippur. Hence, there is more focus on the fact that G-d gave the Torah, because we did not in fact receive it on that day.

This begs the question of why is it so significant that G-d gave us the Torah, when in practice we did not even receive it at that time. One answer is that we are focusing on G-d’s immense kindness of giving us the Torah. A different, but not contradictory approach will be suggested here: The act of the Giving of the Torah completely changed the nature of existence on this day, and this is a major aspect of what we are celebrating.

In what way did the nature of existence change? In order to explain this, it is instructive to first understand about the relationship between physicality and spirituality. The human being comprises of a body and a soul. The body is a tangible entity represents a person’s physical drives and desires whereas the soul is an intangible entity which yearns for spiritual connection. These two entities seem to be total opposites with regard to their desires, goals and pleasures. Accordingly, the ‘natural’ way of things is that a person can either focus on his body or his soul but not both at the same time.

Indeed, a cursory look at the non-Jewish approach throughout history to the body and soul amply demonstrates this point. In the course of history, it appears that there have been two general approaches. One approach is to totally embrace the body and its desires, with total obliviousness to the desires of the soul. The other is to strive to focus on the soul to the exclusion of physical pleasure.1

In a broad sense, the Western world has adopted the first approach. People spend most of their lives in the pursuit of physical pleasure and material success. In contrast, the Eastern religions have strived to separate a person from his body and to develop his spiritual side through meditation and abstinence from physical enjoyment.

It is interesting to note that both approaches do not seem to have attained success. In the Western world, many people enjoy great wealth and can indulge in numerous enjoyable activities, and yet they are plagued by a sense of emptiness and lack of true purpose. Indeed, many Westerners spend time in the East in an attempt to attune themselves to their spiritual sides. On the other hand, most people are unable to sustain the extreme lives of separation that some of the Eastern religions propound.

Yet, it is understandable that a person would have to choose between the body and soul and could not combine the two, because of their incongruent natures. Yet, we know that Judaism does stress such a combination. On the one hand, Judaism puts great stress on spirituality, through Torah learning, prayer, and contemplation. However, we also involve ourselves in the spiritual through physical activities, such as acts of kindness, shaking a lulav and esrog, eating matzo and so on. Moreover, Judaism does not promote ascetism to the degree of the Eastern religions. For example, Judaism greatly encourages getting married and having children, eating well (for the right reasons), and it does not automatically disdain material attainment. However, it couches all these things in a spiritual context as ways to connect to G-d.

How can a Jew achieve this seemingly paradoxical combination? The answer is because of the Giving of the Torah. This was the seminal event in history in that it brought down spiritual concepts into the finite world in the form of the Torah. This is in itself a paradoxical event, yet the fact that it took place, means that there is now the ability to combine body and soul. Yet this ability was only given to the Jewish people when they were the only Nation who accepted the Torah. It is through the Torah that the body and the soul can work together to attain completion. Since the other nations did not receive the Torah, they do not have the ability to combine the body and soul, and have to choose one or the other.2

There are a number of sources that demonstrate that Shavuot in particular stresses this combination of body and soul. For example, the Maharal notes that Shavuot is the only festival in which we offer a Communal Peace Offering3. He explains, writing that “on this day there is peace and a strong connection between the upper and lower worlds.4

Likewise, there is a dispute among the Rabbis with regard to how a person should conduct himself on the Jewish holy days. Rebbe Yehoshua holds that one should devote part of his time to spiritual pursuits, and the rest of his time to physical enjoyment. Rebbe Eliezer argues that it is impossible to be involved in both spirituality and physicality, rather one must choose to totally focus on one or the other. The implication of Rebbe Eliezer’s approach is that one should focus purely on spiritual activities such as learning and praying, to the exclusion of physical pleasures such as eating and drinking. However, the Talmud then points out with regards to Shavuot, even Rebbe Eliezer agrees that one should also involve himself in eating and drinking. The reason given is that this is the day that the Torah was given5.

One would have thought that Shavuot in particular should be solely devoted to spiritual pursuits given that it is the day that the Torah was given. The answer is that while Rebbe Eliezer argued that on other holidays one cannot combine spiritual pursuits with physical involvement, he held that Shavuot is different. The reason for this is that on Shavuot there is a special energy whereby physicality and spirituality need not contradict each other, rather they can work together to bring about a greater revelation of G-d to the world.

We have seen how Shavuot enables us to live a spiritual life without totally disdaining the physical world. This is no easy task, but the Festival of Shavuot is an ideal time to work on this area – may we all succeed in this endeavor.

By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen


  1. This idea was heard from Rav Akiva Tatz shlit’a.
  2. Needless to say, if a non-Jew chooses to convert, then he gains a Jewish soul is able to combine the two. Moreover, the Kabbalistic sources teach that the souls of converts were actually present at Mattan Torah, hence their ability to join body with soul.
  3. This is a sacrifice – part of it is eaten by those who offer it. In contrast, a Korban Olah is completely given over to Shamayim.
  4. Tiferes Yisroel, Ch.25.
  5. Pesachim, 68b.

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