Numbers 4:21-7:89: Wake Up: God Is Speaking

close up of  a vintage red bell clock on white background
close up of a vintage red bell clock on white background

As the wedding section grows in May and June, I am reminded of my own wedding day. The sky seemed bluer that day, the dress seemed whiter, and the cake seemed sweeter.

As newlyweds, we danced and rejoiced, filled with sensation. And then for the first time, we entered our apartment and fell asleep, deep in a dream filled state, until 3 a.m., when my wife and I were suddenly awakened by the fire station across the street. The siren roared and we reared. The sound was earth shaking, for about 30 seconds, until the silence returned and we went back to sleep.

The next day, our first as a married couple, was magical, even if we were a bit tired. Everything went according to plan until 3 a.m. that is, when once again the siren roared and we were stirred from our sleep. Who knew to stand outside our apartment at 3 a.m. before signing a lease?

But we enjoyed our second day together. How could we not? We were newlyweds. We were tired, but everything was new and spring filled. But on the third night, something extraordinary happened: we slept ... and slept and slept. We slept through the entire night.

I woke up and bounded out the door, finding the neighbor across the street. "Finally, the siren didn't go off," I exclaimed. "No," she said, "the siren goes off every night. You just don't hear it anymore." And she was right. It only takes three nights to no longer hear a ground shaking alarm. It's really quite amazing. In an effort to protect us, the brain filters out the sound, no longer stirring us to life.

Thank God, for the next four years that we lived in that apartment there never was an actual fire in our apartment. I'm convinced that we would have never awakened until it was too late. Yes the brain tries to protect us, but it also risks filtering out the wrong things. How many other sensations did we no longer hear, taste or feel?

This week, we read from the longest portion in the entire Torah, Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89). Naso is filled with words and details that could desensitize any careful reader. And so, the portion open with the word naso, meaning "lift up" and "count." It is a command to pay attention and count what is most important (the immediate context being a census).

That's why Naso happens in the desert, where the landscape is vast and seemingly monotonous. It's easy to let one grain of sand blend into the next. Sometimes, life is not much different. The days merge together, but Naso reminds us to count each and every moment. Record every single individual before you. Don't fall asleep.

Interestingly, there is a tradition to stay up all night on the holiday of Shavuot (commemorating the giving of the Torah by God to the Children of Israel), the holiday we celebrate within days of reading this Torah portion. We don't want to miss anything important.

Shavuot is our reminder that in our awakened state, we can hear vastly more. After all, that's what happened to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. We celebrate Shavuot this week not because God spoke to our ancient ancestors for the very first or last time. We celebrate Shavuot because it was then at Mount Sinai that the Children of Israel heard so much more.

In fact, according to a midrashic teaching in Exodus Rabbah (29:9), no bird twittered, no fowl flew, no ox bellowed. The whole world stood silent, listening carefully to God's great teaching.

We too can have these moments of revelation. God speaks each and every day. Naso is a reminder to pay close attention and wake up to the world around us. Turn off the noise and see the beauty. Don't sleep through the sacred dimensions of life.

On Shavuot, it is as though we are at a wedding, and we and God are the newlyweds. The sky is bluer, and the dress is whiter and the cake is sweeter. Revelation.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.