B’midbar and Iyar take us from mourning to joy


Rabbi Seth D. Gordon

Nissan and Tishrei are arguably the most well-known Hebrew months because of Pesach and Rosh ha-Shanah; others like Tish’a b-Av, the 9th of Av, are known by their date, like the 4th of July. As we begin the fourth book of the Torah — B-midbar / Numbers — we are still in Iyar. Although Iyar may not bask in the limelight like its siblings, it is a profoundly significant month in Jewish history and religious practice is intimately connected to B-midbar.

The verse that opens our parashah and the entire Book of Numbers may seem dull — “On the first day of the second month — in the second year — following the exodus from Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.” But dates often excite those who are involved. This second month would be Iyar — in the second year. What follows are commands to take a census and the tribal configuration of the camp — met with anxiety and excitement — as the Israelites begin what would be its 38-year wilderness wandering.

Peeking ahead, we come to an out-of-order dating, but still focused on Iyar. In Numbers 9:1 — “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, on thefirst new moon of the second year following the exodus from Egypt, saying …” — the mitzvah commands us to continue observing the Pesach offering, even after the original dramatic event. The command in 9:11 adds “but if one was impure or too far away” — they are to offer the Pesach offering on the 14th of the second month — Iyar, exactly one month later.

Soon afterward (10:11) — we learn that on the 20th day of the second month — Iyar — the cloud lifted from the Mishkan, and the Israelites, again with anxiety and excitement, actually set out for the land of milk and honey.

Therefore, in the span of just a few weeks in Iyar of the second year, the Israelites took a national census, ordered their march, observed a deferred Pesach, and began moving forward to the Promised Land. (It should be noted that on the first month of the second year the Mishkan was erected [Exodus 40:2]; for 12 days representatives from each of the tribes brought offerings day after day, and after seven days Aaron and his sons were inaugurated.) The beginning of the second year was an intense period.

In addition, most of the Omer period is in Iyar — to be first observed after we settled in our land. (Leviticus 23:9-16.) Beginning from the second day of Pesach – 16 Nissan to 6 Sivan — Shavuot — a token sheaf from the first grains were to be brought — mostly in Iyar. (New grain could not be eaten until the omer of a sheaf was first brought to God.)

But history intervened. For the past 2,000 years, the Omer period is best known for two things: Counting to Shavu’ot from Pesach and as a national mourning period — no weddings, no haircuts — in memory of the deaths of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students. This represents the death and destruction of Israel by the Romans.

In essence, the joy of the agricultural festival and our gratitude to God was diminished, if not supplanted, by our pain and suffering. For thousands of years, this dominated Jewish life amidst the rhythm of the Jewish religious calendar.

But 75 years ago — on the 5th of Iyar, 1948 — after two thousand years of being deprived of our own land, came our Yom ha-Atzma’ut — independence. Jews and supporters of Israel throughout the world deliriously celebrated, and still celebrate today. Once again, God and history had intervened; Iyar was restored to a month of celebration. And then came Yom Yerushalyim — more celebration for the capture and control of our holiest city — in Iyar, 1967.

This season, I am blessed to be in Israel. With my fellow Jews, I count the omer. My hair grew and my beard got scruffier and scruffier. When Lag b-Omer came – when the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students ceased — I trimmed my facial hair. I observed Pesach and God willing, will observe Shavu’ot and all of Iyar here in young, youthful, vibrant Israel. Of course, Israel is not without its challenges. But let us remain balanced — and most of all, grateful.

Being a Jew in its fullness means identifying with all of our history and all our religious teachings. In our personal lives we absorb and endure pain and suffering, and we celebrate our blessings and our joyous moments and eras. So too as proud Jews.

With God’s help and blessing, we can, even in our darker days, persevere with faith that God walks with us in history. Our darkness can become light, and our mourning can become joy. Esther 9:22 refers to another month, Adar, during which we can take comfort and inspiration that “… the month had been transformed from grief to joy, from mourning to festive joy.”

A blessed Iyar — and more — to us.

Rabbi Seth D. Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.