The first part of the book of Numbers creates an idealized camp, but it all begins to fall apart in this week’s parshah; it all begins with grievances. Some grievances are indeed justified, but some only seem so.
Gavin McInnes, the founder of the hipster Magazine Vice and the Proud Boys, created an unapologetic culture of political incorrectness. “Yes, I am a Western Chauvinist.” He has used his raucous podcast, a strange brew of misogyny, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiments, and irreverent vulgarity, to create a community of individuals that are almost exclusively white men. Like other populist leaders, McInnes has tapped into an extensive list of white grievances and insecurities. The group eschews the very notions of civility, demonstrating in paramilitary gear and encouraging violent provocation. The 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville was the first time this group became more noticeable on a national stage, and while he did not go to the rally, many of his followers did, united with other ultra-nationalist, including Neo-Nazis. The grievance? White people are being replaced by those who are not ‘real Americans.’ Our tribe is the primary tribe; that is the most important value upon which everything else evolves.
Our parashah begins with an idealized camp of the Jewish people. Like the diverse tapestry of this country, the Israelites are twelve distinct tribes with distinct flags and identities. Yet, these twelve tribes all encamp around the Tabernacle, three flanking each of its sides. God’s presence resides in the center of the camp as it were, represented by a heavenly cloud. From between the two cherubim on the ark, placed dead center in the encampment, emanates the Divine call to each Israelite to be faithful to the Torah (Exodus 29:42). That Divine imperative constitutes the raison d’etra of the Jewish people as a nation, a larger collective. The Jewish people as opposed to a tribe is not more than the sum of its parts, but qualitatively different.
Consider the basic unit of Jewish gathering, the minyan of ten for services. The minyan is a single unit- it is not ten individuals- and collectively becomes the agent for the sanctification of God, v’nikdashti b’toch benei Yisrael, I (God) shall be sanctified (collectively) among the children of Israel (Lev. 22:32). True, in some ways each person is unique; each person may have different visions, different backstories, and different ideologies.. However, on a more fundamental level they are covenanted, forged together through the piercing Divine call of Sinai. The nation/community, as opposed to a confederation of tribes, are not united primarily through common past, but more importantly through a professed aspirational future to which they have all pledged allegiance.
If we reflect further upon the spatial architecture of the encampment in the desert, we might come to an inevitable temptation. Whatever the Torah tells me I need to be, I also have an ancestral and tribal history, and I am carrying these “gods” with me as well on my travels. I am shaped by my own collective and individual quests for power, money, and resources. Regardless of whether I professed allegiance at Sinai, I may not really want to be encumbered by any externally imposed law or value. In fact, I may want to raise my own tribal flag, and I am not really interested in encamping around a common center. Unless of course, that center is me! “Do not tread on me!” I might say, and I will fly any flag I want! I may even walk through the streets, demonstrating in the name of liberty and individual rights.
Following the description of the orderly arrangements of the tribes around the central Tabernacle of God we are told that the clouds of glory ascend, signaling the tribes to move onward towards the Promised Land. The people are said to have “taken leave from the mountain of God” (Numbers 10:33). The rabbis note that with these words the utopian vision begins to crumble, as the people begin to murmur and rebel against God, culminating with the devastating sin of the spies. The Rabbis see taking leave from the Mountain of God as the first puraniyut, the first catastrophe. In what way is taking leave of Sinai a catastrophe? After all, they were commanded to make their way to the Land of Israel. However, they did not merely leave Sinai; they abandoned the mountain of God. The Talmud (Shabbat 116a) comments that “turning from the Mountain of God” was as much a psychological movement as it was a physical relocation. They wanted to leave God and everything God represented, like a “child fleeing religious school.” (See Midrash Yelamdeinu quoted in Tosafot idem.) In other words, they fell for the temptation described above.
As they leave the “mountain of God” they begin complaining about the heavenly food provided by God in the desert, and lust after the fish, the melon, the leeks, and the garlic they “ate for free” in Egypt. They begin to look backward, not forward, and somehow Egypt becomes the land flowing with milk and honey. In an ingenious hermeneutic move, the rabbis teach that “for free” means “free from commandments” (Rashi 11:5). They simply do not want to be encumbered by the covenantal demands that are implied by divinely given bread. Subconsciously they were objecting to the very foundations of the Jewish body politic. They wanted their own desires in the center- not God’s. They wanted to be tribes, not a covenanted people. This series of grievances will continue to avalanche until next week’s parahshah, and the people will pay for it with forty years of languishing in the desert. An entire generation will not make it to the Promised Land.
The response of our country to the multiple crisis’s requires collective action for the common good, to see oneself locked in a network of mutuality. Litanies of grievances and blaming the other for the problems we face, will keep us languishing in our own wilderness. The utter lack of any unified response as a country to the existential crisis we have faced, must force us to consider whether we as a society prefer to be a unified people or a collection of political, economic, or racial tribes. During most periods of stress (think World War II), Americans have come together; today we are divided as ever. Are we willing to take responsibility for others? Sadly, under the banner of “liberty” many are not.
Sadly, all too often we want to “eat for free:”, free from the collective demands that would signal an effective response to recent events- whether it be a pandemic, racism, immigration, or violence. Some like the proud boys even relish in the throwing off any notion of a covenanted people, embracing their tribal gods. We need to really ask whether what we call our American system is simply a thin veneer masking a power struggle between distinct groups. The sections of the Torah we read in the coming weeks are all too relevant for our present predicament.
 Nachmanides and others compare the encampment as parallel to the encampment around Sinai itself, and mystically compare the encampment to the Divine chariot of Ezekiel’s vision (ch.1), where each of the four faces represented on the chariot reflect the four flanks surrounding the Tabernacle. In other words, the Divine chariot is the hypostasis of the encampment of Israel.