Anyone acquainted with the Torah reading we hear each Rosh Chodesh will find themselves in familiar territory as we read in this week’s parsha Tetzaveh (29:38-46) of the daily tamid offerings which are to be brought on the Miz’be’ach (altar) once its elements are put together and it is inaugurated.
Rashi notes on Bamidbar 28:6 that the reference there, about the “eternal burnt offering which had been brought at Sinai” and is to be mimicked, refers either to the offerings described in Shmot 24 while at the bottom of the mountain, or the offerings brought during the actual time of the dedication of the Mishkan (in Parshat Shmini). Whichever one is correct, that would suggest that the parallel language between Bamidbar 28 and our parsha is simply in the matter of instruction, while not necessarily describing the actual offering-as-brought.
Rabbenu Bachaye has a most insightful comment, following a teaching from the Talmud Chagigah 6b, which I think will prove to be most instructive and inspiring.
From the fact that the reference is made to Sinai when describing these “daily” offerings, it would seem that after leaving Sinai, the Israelites did not bring these offerings at all until the final year!
The Talmud in Chagigah records the following: Rabbi Elazar teaches that the verse “which had been brought at Sinai” (Bamibdar 28:6) teaches that the rules for how the bring the daily offerings were taught at Sinai, but the offerings were not brought at that time. Rabbi Akiva is of the view that they were brought, and they never stopped being offered daily. How do we reconcile this debate, in light of the verse in Amos 5:25 that describes how “you offered sacrifices to Me for 40 years in the wilderness?” The Tribe of Levi, who did not participate in any form of idolatry, took the responsibility to bring these offerings.
Rabbenu Bachaye concludes that even according to Rabbi Akiva, who says that they had been brought and never stopped, this suggests that the overwhelming majority of the Bnei Yisrael did not participate in these daily offerings at all, but the faith was held together in the wilderness by the torch-carrying Levites who kept everything going.
This is not an insult to the Israelites of the wilderness. They also didn’t circumcise during their wanderings. To my best recall, the only times rebuke is given for not following the law is over the Sabbath (when people went to collect Manna in Parshat Beshalach and the wood gatherer in Parshat Shlach), taking G-d’s name in vain (the blasphemer of Parshat Emor), and for otherwise not trusting G-d when a crisis arose (spies, Korach, water, a battle, etc.)
How observant were the generation of Israelites who left Egypt? We know very little of their lives during the 38 years that are skipped in the verse, from the time of Korach until the death of Miriam. And so, in simple terms, we don’t know. We know little to nothing about how the Mishkan functioned in the wilderness, beyond the “inauguration day” and the information discussed above about whether or not they brought daily offerings. There is further evidence that they didn’t even bring the Pesach offering during the 38 years on account of the non-circumcision!
But two things carried them, and allowed for their children to merit the Promised Land:
1) an overwhelming respect for Moshe and the Torah he brought and taught, and
2) Levites who were the Keepers of the Faith.
Both must be ingrained in ourselves and in our children.
First, we must have great respect, awe and reverence for the Torah, but we must also take it a level up and study in order to observe. Second, we must be the Levites of our generation — we can’t consign religion and religious practice to the “rabbis,” it is our responsibility to be the torch carriers.
With the right attitude towards our fellow Jews, if we are successful in these two areas, the Jewish people should be blessed to find ourselves united in at least one arena — valuing both the Torah and the observance of her laws.