In the desert (bamidbar) is the name of the fourth book of the Torah and also the name of its first portion. There are circumstances in this book that make our sages reflect on, and one of them is the meaning of the phrase in the desert.
“And God spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai.” (Numbers 1:1)
Some reflect on the apparent redundancy in the words “desert” and “Sinai”, considering that Sinai is located in the desert, and they understand this in several ways.
In the desert we were constantly before our Creator whose presence dwelt in Sinai where He communicated directly with Moses, our teacher. Both places mentioned imply the unity of the people of Israel with God, that later continues with the tabernacle as the intermediary.
In the desert we are separated from our mundane life, a place where there is nothing to depend on or to be attached in order to live according to what we choose to do in life. Indeed the desert is where we briefly dwell because there is nothing there except what we carry to sustain us while we are there.
In the desert there are no materialistic illusions that we may desire to have or to be, and no chance for idol worshiping because there are no images to bow to (unless we make them): The perfect circumstances to conceive God and be aware of His love that created us and sustains us, the “place” to receive His Torah.
If we don’t clear our consciousness from materialistic desires and attachments, we will never be the empty vessels to be filled with the permanent awareness of God’s love. This awareness is the marriage of God and Israel, the eternal bond of love evoked in the Song of Songs and in the haftarah we read along with this portion.
“I will marry you to Me forever. I will marry you to Me with righteousness and with justice, and with loving kindness and compassion. I will marry you to Me with faithfulness, and you will know the Lord.” (Hosea 2:21-22)
These verses are preceded by the times when the idols as ego’s desires and materialistic illusions do not fulfill the true meaning of life.
“And she shall run after her lovers, but she shall not overtake them, and she shall seek them, but shall not find them. Then shall she say: ‘I will go and return to my first husband, for then was it better with me than now’.” (Ibid. 2:9)
As soon as we are finally willing to return to God, He will embrace us.
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her in the desert, and I will speak to her heart. (…) as in the day when she came up out of the land of Egypt.” (2: 16-17)
“I remember the loving kindness of your youth, your bridal Love, your following after Me in the desert, in an unsowed land.” (Jeremiah 2:2)
Once again the Torah reminds us that it is our choice to return to love as God’s legacy, and also as our permanent connection with His ways and attributes.
“Take a head count (lit. “raise the heads”) of all the congregation of the children of Israel (…)” (Numbers 1:2)
This “head count”, according to our sages represents how precious every soul is for our Creator. “Raising the heads” to Him is how we make ourselves aware of this. Why could it be otherwise? How can we conceive God’s love without loving all His creation? When we look around and see the perfection of that He has created we realize that what we make imperfect is the way we conceive it, and the way we relate to it and to our fellow man.
After this head count, the Torah mentions the way the tribes of Israel settled every time they encamped in their journeys by the desert.
“The children of Israel shall encamp, each man by his division with the flag staffs of their fathers’ house; at some distance from the Tent of Meeting they shall encamp.” (2:2)
The tribes represent traits and qualities that combined into their service of the Creator achieve the mission for which Israel was chosen to be and to do. These traits are the blessings they received from their father Jacob and from Moses (Genesis 49:3-27, Deuteronomy 33:6-29)
“All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is it what their father spoke unto them and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them.” (Genesis 49:28)
These blessings are the qualities that we elevate to God in order to make a place for Him to dwell in this world. Judah, the one that has encompassed all the Tribes for more than two thousand years, as the one chosen to bring redemption to the world, is represented by a lion and a precious stone that shines in darkness: Light in the darkness of the world.
While describing the way the tribes encamped around the Tabernacle, Levi is not mentioned because their space, their land, is with God.
“Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel, and the Levites shall be Mine.” (Numbers 3:12)
As we mentioned throughout our commentaries on the book of Leviticus, the high priest as part of the tribe of Levi are our higher consciousness always close to God.
The idea of the way the tribes encamped is that all must be united around a center, the tabernacle, and close to those who serve in it: the Levites who encamped in its grounds.
The mission of the Levites is emphasized by being counted separately as part of God, the ones that lead our consciousness to His domains. Our sages say that Levi and his descendants were blessed by his father to be the teachers for his brothers.
“I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.” (Genesis 49:7)
This to keep them always close to love’s ways and attributes as the higher consciousness the Levites represent, including safekeeping peace among their people.
“And the Levites shall pitch round about the tabernacle of the testimony, that there be no wrath upon the congregation of the children of Israel, and the Levites shall keep the charge of the tabernacle of the testimony.” (Numbers 1:53)
The portion ends with instructions for the high priest and his sons to care for the duties inside the tabernacle, and instructing those who will carry it when moving in the desert.
“Aaron and his sons shall first come and appoint each man individually to his task and his load.” (4:19)
With this we learn again that every aspect of consciousness serve accordingly as a vessel of God’s ways and attributes. They are taken into account based on their particular qualities, either it be thought, emotion, speech, action, feeling, passion or instinct as it is mentioned later in parshat Naso.
“According to the commandment of the Lord they were appointed by the hand of Moses, everyone to his service, and to his load; they were also counted as the Lord commanded Moses.” (4:49)