3 Sivan 5781/ May 14, 2021
47th day of the Omer
This Shabbat we read the opening of the Book of Bemidbar. The parasha sets the scene for Bene Yisrael to prepare to leave Mt. Sinai and continue their journey towards the land of Canaan, the “promised land.” The main topics of the parasha include assigning positions for each tribe around the Mishkan, clarifying how the tribes will march through the wilderness in formation, the assigned tasks of the three Levite families to deconstruct and transport the sections and furniture of the Mishkan, taking a military census, clarifying the status of of the tribe of Levi and replacing the first-borns as the tribe of leadership for the nation. These topics suggest an essential question: How can Hashem teach a group of former slaves how to see themselves as free people and as members of a nation with a sense of responsibility? Each of these topics provides part of an answer to this question. The census is particularly instructive. According to the Keli Yakar, God directed Moshe to take a census for the pragmatic reason of raising an army. Alternatively, Rashi stated that God showed divine love for each individual by counting them often, the way a parent constantly determines that all of the children are present and accounted for during a family outing. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev claimed that the number of people corresponded to the letters of the Torah itself, suggesting that the collectivity of the nation became an incarnation of the Torah, a walking, breathing source of continuous revelation.
The tribes gained an identity for themselves by receiving a position around the Mishkan, by designating leaders within their tribe, and by carrying a flag identifying them. The Leviim acquired additional responsibilities as national leaders, defining both religious/spiritual as well as governance structures and procedures. Everyone acquired a visual, lived experience of Hashem’s central presence with the Mishkan in the middle of the camp. Through these structures and assignments, God taught that a community, and by extension, a nation, needs a sense of purpose, a set of higher ideals towards which they will always strive.
Powerfully, God instructed these assignments to prepare Benei Yisrael to depart Mt. Sinai. The juxtaposition to Sinai is particularly striking since the parasha falls so close to Shavuot. Their identity, grounded in these roles and structures, was soon to become embedded in a journey across the wilderness. Perhaps the Book of Bemidbar, teaches that our inner lives, our neshamot, and our vision as a Jewish people, are nurtured more when we see life as a journey than as a final, permanent encampment. Perhaps this section of the Torah is challenging us to to see ourselves as sojourners in God’s world, to learn to become custodians on that journey, to find our places around God’s sanctuary wherever we construct it, to serve with humility, and to imbue the wilderness with the creativity, spirit, and faith that Hashem hoped would nourish our ancestors and us. Of course, that journey had direction, but in some ways perhaps it was significantly aspirational. Successful settlement of the promised land, filled with peace, security and blessing, might depend more than anything else on what our people would learn (or fail to learn) on this journey. Indeed, our sacred history is essentially, more journey than sojourn.
There are many episodes throughout the Book of Bemidbar that allow us to read this as a metaphor for the development of the soul of our people. For example, several chapters later, when Bene Yisrael became parched, it was God’s word that actually slaked their thirst and not the physical water that flowed from a rock:
The community was without water, and they joined against Moshe and Aharon. The people quarreled with Moshe, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the LORD! Why have you brought the LORD’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” …Moshe and Aharon assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moshe raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But the LORD said to Moshe and Aharon, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Bemidbar 20:2-12)
This event, almost more than any other, illustrates how to read the entire journey as a sacred history of the nation’s neshama. Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, 18th-19th century Hungry, interpreted the episode of Mei Merivah as fundamentally about the inner, emotional and psychological life of the people:
The problem with the nation was that the people could not imagine how their innermost thoughts, which nobody can see or hear, and which remain completely hidden, could be apprehended by God. When they witnessed the splitting of the sea into dry land, they could assimilate that phenomenon, since God created these natural phenomena. What they could not fathom, however, was that God could also discern their thoughts, hidden deep inside of their mind. They could not comprehend that despite the fact that thoughts are ephemeral, before God they are as real as they experienced material reality. God comprehends, sees everything with a spiritual eye. This was the foundation of all the bitterness and suffering in the wilderness, for since the people had no motivation to restrain their thoughts, they lacked the sense of awe that God would understand their thoughts and feelings. (Yismach Moshe, Chukat 7:3)
I read the entire book of Bemidbar through this lens of interiority; the “waters of contention” being just one powerful example. The people complained about food and water shortly after setting out. Scouts rejected the plans to enter and conquer the land. Korach assembled rebels and challenged Moshe’s authority. Miriam and Aharon cast aspersions on Moshe’s reputation. These events cast the journey through the wilderness as an emotional famine. While food rained from Heaven every day, the people were starving for trust, confidence, faith, relatedness, emotional stability, vision, meaning, and purpose.
God might have anticipated this state of inner malaise. By taking a census, establishing a military force, defining roles clearly and counting everyone (adult males), perhaps God hoped that the outer structure would convey inner confidence and purpose. Additionally, God established an additional layer of leadership by appointing the tribe of Levi to serve as custodians of the Mishkan and to protect the people from transgressing the boundaries separating the sacred from the mundane.
You shall put the Leviim in charge of the Tabernacle of the Pact, all its furnishings, and everything that pertains to it: they shall carry the Mishkan and all its furnishings, and they shall tend it; and they shall camp around the Tabernacle. When the Mishkan is to set out, the Levites shall take it down, and when the Tabernacle is to be pitched, the Leviim shall set it up; any outsider who encroaches shall be put to death. The Israelites shall encamp troop by troop, each man with his division and each under his standard. The Leviim, however, shall camp around the Tabernacle of the Pact, that rage may not strike the Israelite community; the Leviim shall stand guard around the Mishkan of the Pact. The Israelites did accordingly; just as the LORD had commanded Moshe, so they did. (Bemidbar 1:47-53)
This is an interesting juxtaposition: appointing the Leviim to guard the Mishkan is set in the context of counting men for the military and designating positions in formation for marching through the desert. If the Book of Bemidbar can be read as a sacred history of the inner life and spirit of the nation, then this parasha establishes foundational language for this interpretation. The wars to be fought, described as physical, military campaigns, can be simultaneously understood as inner battles. Rabbi Dov Ber ben Avraham of Mezeritch, 18th century Poland, also known as the Maggid of Mezritch, and who was a disciple of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, wrote the following about the military campaign in the Torah:
[In Devarim the Torah states,] “When you go out to war….” The explanation of this is when a human being becomes alienated from an attachment to the Holy One, Blessed be God. When that happens, then an [internal] war erupts. In other words, separation from the spiritual source of life causes [spiritual] warfare [inside of the person….]The section continues describing attraction to a woman as prisoner of war. When one’s attraction is only physical, it is not possible to build a relationship [on a deeper level]…Relatedness requires [integration of] thought so that the sparks of [energy of one’s life-force] connect at the root….(Maggid Devarav leYaakov 8)
Imagining our ancestors marching in formation through the wilderness, with forcefulness and strength, acknowledging clear boundaries between God’s sanctuary and the encampments of the tribes, projects an image of strength and fortitude. Now imagine that image as a description of the collective neshama of the nation. The image suggests confidence and trust, faith and vision, purpose and direction, respect and humility in which everyone’s role is acknowledged with a feeling of interdependency. This would be a nation, a collective, reflecting God’s initial hope for the humanity God created in Gan Eden. Here would be a nation whose external presentation reflected an ability for deep relatedness. Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, Poland in the 19th century, described such a divine hope for humanity in his commentary on creation in Bereshit:
God said, “Let us make the human being.” In other words, initially, God created all of the creatures. Then, all of the creatures realized that there was no creature that could connect their collective life-energy to the Creator. That is the nature of humanity: humanity’s role is to facilitate the interconnectedness of all creatures and join that life force to God. Every created phenomenon contributes its own unique potential to the interrelatedness of all creation. Inanimate phenomenon connect to vegetation, vegetation to animals, animals to humans, and humans then serve God as custodians of the world. (Mei haShiloach, volume 1,, Bereshit 1)
In volume 2 in the same section, the Mei haShiloach added, “…God structured the world so that human procreation would establish a family culture of parents raising their children, thereby implanting the quality of compassion and empathy, “rachmanut,” in the hearts of human beings.” This image of the nature of the human heart lies at the center of a rabbinic description of revelation at Mt. Sinai:
Rabbi Eliezer said: From the day when the Israelites went forth from Egypt, they were journeying and encamping without dispute, they were journeying without dispute and they were encamping without dispute, as it is said, “And they journeyed (from Rephidim, and they came to the wilderness of Sinai), and they encamped in the wilderness” (Ex. 19:2); until they all came to Mount Sinai, and they all encamped opposite the mountain, like one man with one heart, as it is said, “And there Israel encamped before the mount.” (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 41)
This reading of parashat Bemidbar, several days before reenacting revelation at Sinai, speaks to the tragic, horrific chaos of the moment. A group of recently liberated, traumatized, beaten, emasculated, disempowered slaves are prepared to embrace life. They have a sacred center. They have boundaries and rules. They have roles. Life has structure and order and purpose and direction and meaning. Their inner life has regained vitality and confidence and resilience. And more than anything else, they have been recreated in the image of a humanity that God desired: a nation with a heart, a nation with the ability to relate to other human beings, to see them as human, to be in touch with and pay attention to the interior energies that unite all creatures and all of creation.
And yet, as leaders foment anger in the land and state of Israel, and people hurl stones, and shoot weapons, and fire rockets, and drop bombs, and vie for power and political ascendency, mothers and fathers weep for their dead children. With all of the complicated facts on the ground, scattered like rubbish blowing in the wind, dare we close our hearts to the single-most important Jewish value the Torah never wants us to abandon: to see every human being as a life created in God’s image. That certainly complicates matters; interpreting the events of the day is so much easier if we allow ourselves to forget each other’s humanity. Hashem knows that is what we will do: we will constantly forget to see each other’s humanity. Our society will create structures and ways of thinking to help us forget. We will protest and make excuses and claim self-defense and victimization. We will be attracted to wealth and power and become arrogant, and we will cease to keep our eyes on the humanity and dignity of others. That is why God constantly forced us to return to the wilderness, and retrace our steps, and retake our primal journey, and try to rediscover the structures and boundaries and strength and formations for the rehumanization that God first instructed to Moshe in our parasha. Some people have called that return to the wilderness, “exile.” The prophet Hoshea conveys this message in this week’s hatorah:
In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; I will also banish bow, sword, and war from the land. Thus I will let them lie down in safety. And I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, And with goodness and mercy, And I will espouse you with faithfulness; Then you shall be devoted to the LORD. (Hoshea 2:20-22)
We recite these words every day one prays with tefillin. Our covenant with God as Creator is not our entitled relationship. It is one that empowers us with responsibility to see the life energy, the interconnectedness, and the divinity in all creatures, including the humanity in all human beings.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,