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Setting out in search of a heart for humanity

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Parashat Bemidbar
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........

© The Times of Israel (Blogs)

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