You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Bamidbar.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Bamidbar
Rav DovBer Pinson
Taking a Census of our Life
We start a new book of the Torah this week, The book of Ba’Midbar – this chronicles the Israelites passage through the desert and their growth as a people. The Parsha begins with the counting of the people.
“se’ua” – “take a census of the whole community . . .listing every person by name, one by one.”
Se’ua – translated as census – comes from the root word – to elevate. When we think of counting, we usually think of the individual reduced to a number – yet, in this particular census each person must be listed by “their name” – their individuality.
By taking into account each individual person, the person is then lifted higher into their individuality, revealing their unique potential – the person then truly counts in the bigger picture.
When we see our life as a big jumble of happenings, people, hardships and joys – each thing seems to get lost in the other, and the picture is blurred. A high resolution image is one that has sharply defined pixels – each pixel counting towards the overall clarity of the image. When looking at the picture, we see a high clarity full picture, and zooming in, we recognize each pixel as integral to its overall quality.
Before we move forward into the ‘desert’, the emptiness that precedes the receiving of the Torah, we need to first look back into our past and connect the dots. However, before connecting the dots, we must first recognize each dot as an individual, crucial component of the entire picture.
THE WEEK’S ENERGY
This weeks energy compels us to take a census – to lift and elevate each individual person, event and emotion within our lives to a higher status. We view our lives in ‘high definition,’ so to speak. This week we take a census of the parts of our lives.
Naming each piece of our lives and recognizing it as a unique part of the bigger picture. When a single letter in the Torah is even slightly blurred, the entire scroll is damaged.
The energy of the week is seeing each individual part in high definition, elevating its status in the tapestry of your life
From Avielah Barclay Soferet
Parshat Ba-midbar: Dotted Letters in the DesertShare. Friday, May 22, 2009 at 3:43am
“Three times was G-d exiled: in the Name, in the bursting open of the Name, and in the effacing of this bursting open.”
– Edmond Jabès (Cairo, 1912 – Paris, 1991) Jewish writer and poet
In Sifri there are ten instances where a word or group of words appears where one or all of the letters are dotted in the text. In this week’s Torah portion, Ba-Midbar, we find a curious series of dots over the name of Aharon, the High Priest. Ba-midbar/Numbers 3:39 reads:
כָּל-פְּקוּדֵי הַלְוִיִּם אֲשֶׁר פָּקַד מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, עַל-פִּי יְהוָה–לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם: כָּל-זָכָר מִבֶּן-חֹדֶשׁ וָמַעְלָה, שְׁנַיִם וְעֶשְׂרִים אָלֶף.
All who were numbered of the Levites, whom Moshe and Aharon counted at the utterance of the LORD, by their families, all males from a month old and upward, were twenty two thousand.
Ve-Aharon (ואהרן) has five dots, one over each letter. Talmud Bavli Masekhet Sof’rim states that “ten in the Torah are marked by dots”, then lists them. The Netziv on Sifri teaches us that if every letter of a word is dotted (as in this case), then this word abandons its usual meaning. We are invited to look deeper into the text, to engage in discussion, thereby entering into relationship and taking ownership of Torah.
So what do we do here, with Aharon? The name of the כהן גדול Kohen Gadol, the high Priest, is not as it seems.
Rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin, in his masterpiece The Burnt Book: Reading the Torah, writes:
“Altogether the total count of Levites, whom Moses and Aaron numbered.” The name Aaron is completey dotted. The Midrash explains that Aaron was not included in the counting of those numbered (he counted but was not himself counted). Because of the dotting, Aaron is excluded, effaced.
And why was Aharon not included in that census even though he was a Levite? Rashi writes that Aharon’s name is dotted because although he was a Levi, he wasn’t included in the Levite census. Why was he not counted?
Rashi goes on: “The tribe of Levi was counted separately from the other tribes of Israel, because it is fit for the legions of a King to be counted separately.”
Therefore, Aharon wasn’t counted with his own tribe of Levi – but Moshe *was*! Aharon, not only as Kohen Gadol, but also as a person, was so unique, so special that he couldn’t be counted or even included in a general census. Aharon was beyond all definition.
And why is the letter Vav (ו) of ve-Aharon dotted? Why “and Aharon” and not just “Aharon”? Why FIVE dots and not four?
According to the Zohar, Aaron was an expert therapist who helped save many relationships. The five dots over “ve- Aharon”, alludes to the five levels of חסד chesed (loving-kindness) which he held and shared. Aaron’s special role is mentioned in Pirkei Avot: “Hillel said, ‘Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace, pursuing peace, loving all of G@d’s creations, and bringing them near to the Torah.'”
Aharon brought oneness to our kehilah with peacemaking and kiruv, outreach. His mission is also hinted at in his name: Alef, Hey, Reysh, stand for אהבה רבה, ahavah rabah, or “great love”. His name’s final letter, Nun Sofit (ן), shows his ability to “draw down” this great love from Shomayim into our kehilah below. Just as the body of the final Nun descends below the line, so Aaron could descend to those of us who had fallen, lift us up and bring us closer to the ahavah rabah of G@d.
The English word “dot” comes from the Greek word for the letter “iota”, which in turn comes from the letter Yud. Yud’s gematrial value is ten. Five dots multiplied by ten 5 x 10 = 50. The number fifty represents of Shavu’ot, the fiftieth day after Passover, after our long count of the Omer. So Aharon, as the embodiment of loving-kindness, represents the attitude we must adopt to receive Torah on the fiftieth day.
As we draw to a close of our counting of the Omer and prepare to approach our own personal Sinaitic revelations, may we be blessed with Aharon’s capacity of deveykut, to truly open with love and kindness to cleave to G@d in the full and joyful way we are each meant to.
Nehama Leibowitz’s Studies in Bamidbar
Sifrei on Bamidbar
Rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin’s The Burnt Book: Reading the Torah
Cross-posted at Mah Omeret Ha-Soferet
Copyright A. Barclay
From Rav Kook
BaMidbar: Flags of Love in the Desert
Throughout their travels in the desert, the Israelites were commanded to set up their tents around tribal flags:
“The Israelites shall encamp with each person near the banner carrying his paternal family’s insignia. They shall encamp at a distance around the Communion Tent.” (Num. 2:2)
What is the significance of these banners?
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:3) says that the inspiration for the banners came from Mount Sinai. Twenty-two thousand chariots of angels, each one decked out with flags, attended the Revelation of the Torah. The Israelites immediately desired to have flags just like the angels, and God agreed. This request for flags, the Midrash teaches, is described in the Song of Songs (2:4): “He brought me to the wine-house, and His banner over me is love.”
From this Midrash we understand that banners relate to some inherent characteristic of angels, though not of people. But we are left with many questions. Why do angels bear flags? Why does the verse refer to Sinai as a ‘wine-house’? And what is the connection between banners and love?
The Specialized Service of Angels
According to the Zohar, the banners of the four major encampments (in each direction: north, south, east and west) corresponded to the four sides or ‘faces’ of the supernal merkava (chariot) in Ezekiel’s mystical vision. Since these four ‘faces’ represent fundamental divine attributes, each encampment related to a particular divine quality.
Before we can explain the meaning of the flags and their connection to angels, we must first understand what an angel is. The Hebrew word mal’ach literally means ‘messenger.’ The essence of an angel is a divine messenger to fulfill a specific mission. An angel cannot perform a task, important though it may be, other than the specific mission for which it was designated.
Now we can better understand the function of the angels’ flags. A banner proclaims a distinctive function or trait. Each angel, limited to a very specific area of Divine service, carries its own distinguishing flag. These flags may be compared to military uniforms, where the dress and insignia indicate the soldier’s unit and assignment.
Human beings, on the other hand, are not limited to serving God in one particular manner. Our divine image encompasses all spiritual spheres (see Nefesh Hachaim 1:10). For us, a banner is too restricting; it does not reflect our true spiritual essence.
Nonetheless, the Jewish people saw in the angelic banners of Sinai an inspiring sight that appealed to them, albeit in a non- obligatory way. Each person has special talents and interests, based on individual character traits and the soul’s inner root. We are not limited in serving God in this particular way, but we are certainly more inclined towards those activities for which we have a natural proclivity. For example, the kind-hearted person may concentrate on serving God with acts of compassion and “chesed”; the strong-willed, with acts of courage and self-sacrifice; and so on.
The Jewish people desired flags like those the angels bore at Sinai. They wanted every individual to be able to choose an aspect of divine service that suited his personality, just as each angel executes a specific function, as defined by his flag.
It is now clear why the verse refers to Mount Sinai as a ‘wine- house.’ Drinking wine releases our inhibitions, revealing our inner character. In the words of the Talmud (Eiruvin 65a), “Wine enters, secrets emerge.” The Israelites envied the beauty and joy they witnessed in divine service of the angels. The root of this pleasantness lies in the innate affinity the angels feel towards their service. Each angel naturally identifies with his particular mission. The Jewish people sought to uncover and emphasize every individual’s personal strengths, in the same way that wine liberates and highlights one’s inner characteristics.
This individualized worship, however, only applies to the service of the heart and the character traits. The banners reflect our feelings of love and joy when serving God — “His banner over me is love” — but not the service itself. Within the framework of Torah study and practical mitzvot, there is no need for distinctive forms of service. Therefore, no banners flew over the central Communion Tent, where the luchot (stone tablets with the Ten Commandments) were stored, since the Torah and its mitzvot relate equally to all souls.
(adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 24-25)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
And G-d spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai (Numbers 1:1)
It is customary that on the Shabbat before a wedding, the bridegroom is called to the Torah. Shavuot, the festival which coincides with the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, represents the marriage of G-d and Israel; this is why the Torah portion of Bamidbar (“in the desert”) is usually read on the Shabbat before Shavuot.
(Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch)
Raise the head of all the congregation of the children of Israel… by the number of names (1:2)
On ten occasions were Israel counted. Once when they went down to Egypt (cf. Genesis 46). A second time when they came out (Exodus 12:37). A third time after the incident of the Golden Calf (ibid., 30:12). Twice in the Book of Numbers: once in formation of the camps (Numbers 1) and once in connection with the division of the land (ibid. 26). Twice in the days of Saul (I Samuel 11:8 and 15:4). The eighth time in the days of David (II Samuel 24:9). The ninth time they were numbered was in the days of Ezra (Ezra 2:64; Nehemiah 7:66). The tenth time will be in the future era of Moshiach, when “The flocks shall again pass under the hands of Him that counts them” (Jeremiah 33:13).
A census expresses two paradoxical truths. On the one hand, it implies that each individual is significant. On the other hand, a head-count is the ultimate equalizer: each member of the community, from the greatest to the lowliest, counts for no less and no more than “one.” G-d repeatedly commands Moses to count the Jewish people to emphasize both their individual worth–the fact that no single person’s contribution is dispensable–as well as their inherent equality.
(The Chassidic Masters)
Every man by his flag, shall the children of Israel camp (2:2)
Each tribe had its own prince and its flag whose color corresponded to the color of its stone [in Aaron’s breastplate–see Exodus 28:15-21]. It was from the tribes of Israel that kingdoms learned to provide themselves with flags of various colors.
Reuben’s stone was a ruby; the color of his flag was red and embroidered thereon were mandrakes [cf. Genesis 30:14].
Simeon’s stone was a topaz; his flag was of a green color, and the town of Shechem was embroidered thereon [cf. Genesis 34:25].
Levi’s stone was a smaragd; the color of his flag was one-third white, one third black, and one third red, and embroidered thereon was [Aaron’s breastplate with] the Urim and Tummim.
Judah’s stone was a carbuncle; the color of his flag was like the color of the heavens and embroidered on it was a lion [cf. Genesis 49:9].
Issachar’s stone was a sapphire; the color of his flag was black like stibnite, and embroidered thereon was the sun and moon, in allusion to the verse, “And of the children of Issachar, men that had understanding of the times” (I Chronicles 12:33).
Zebulun’s stone was an emerald; the color of his flag was white, with a ship embroidered thereon, in allusion to the verse, “Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea” (Gen. 49:13).
Dan’s stone was a jacinth; the color of his flag was similar to sapphire, and embroidered on it was a serpent, in allusion to the verse, “Dan shall be a serpent in the way” (ibid. v. 17).
Gad’s stone was an agate; the color of his flag was neither white nor black but a blend of black and white, and on it was embroidered a military camp, in allusion to the verse, “Gad, a troop shall troop upon him” (ibid. v. 19).
Naphtali’s stone was an amethyst; the color of his flag was like clarified wine of a light red, and on it was embroidered a deer, in allusion to the verse, “Naphtali is a deer let loose” (ibid. v. 21).
Asher’s stone was a beryl; the color of his flag was like the precious stone with which women adorn themselves, and embroidered thereon was an olive-tree, in allusion to the verse, “As for Asher, his bread shall be fat with oil” (ibid. v. 20).
Joseph’s stone was an onyx and the color of his flags were jet black; the embroidered design thereon for the two tribes descending from Joseph, Ephraim and Menasseh, was Egypt, because they were born in Egypt. On the flag of Ephraim was embroidered a bullock, in allusion to the verse, “His firstling bullock” (Deuteronomy 33:17), which refers to Joshua who came from the tribe of Ephraim. On the flag of the tribe of Menasseh was embroidered a unicorn, in allusion to the verse, “And his horns are the horns of the re’em” (ibid.), which alludes to Gideon son of Joash who came from the tribe of Menasseh.
Benjamin’s stone was jasper and the color of his flag was a combination of all the twelve colors; embroidered thereon was a wolf, in allusion to the verse, “Benjamin is a wolf that preys” (Genesis 49:27).
And these are the generations of Aaron and Moses… Nadav, Avihu, Elazar and Itamar (3:1-2)
Why did Moses’ sons not merit [to be in the leadership of Israel]? Because they did not experience the Exodus from Egypt and did not traverse the sea with the people of Israel, as they were [in Midian] with Jethro (Moses’ father in-law–see Exodus 18:1-6).
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
(In the Wilderness)
NUMBERS 1:2 – 4:20
A census is taken and the camp is organized according to Tribes.
OUR JOURNEY TAKES US into the Book of Numbers. The Torah, as a guide for our journey, illuminates the process of incarnation in Genesis, and the process of liberation in Exodus. Leviticus concerns itself with maintaining a state of holy connection to God and each other. The Book of Numbers recounts the soul’s journey through the wilderness. That spiritual path sets in motion the process of self-awareness, purification, and re-birth.
The Hebrew name for The Book of Numbers is Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness.” The wilderness is the place of our journey. We wander for forty years. During this time the generation of slavery dies and a new generation emerges.
The harsh inner reality of the wilderness purifies whatever traces of enslavement we still carry. This wilderness is the midwife of our new life, after long and hard labor. The wilderness forces us to face the resistance, ambivalence and self-delusion that has kept us from whole-heartedly receiving our birthright: the promised flow of milk and honey that is given to us, and through us, with each moment of life. The wilderness will scare out all our old ghosts and send them forth from the shadows into the full light of awareness.
In the wilderness we are stripped of disguises. Defenses fall away. Each part within us is forced to show its true face.
BAMIDBAR BEGINS with the taking of the census. On the spiritual journey it is necessary to look within in order to know, recognize and fully understand the myriad aspects that make up the self, “the parliament of personality.”1
The census is taken of all those who are able to go forth in battle. The Israelites are counted in order to be deployed. The Levites, those whose job it is to take care of the Mishkan and all the holy things in it, are exempted from this counting.
As we take the inner census of the personality, as we list the aspects which comprise the force of our egos, we do so to place their power in service to the soul, to our true essence, to the spark of God within us. Our Levite is the part of us who must guard that essence.
AFTER EACH TRIBE IS COUNTED AND NAMED, it is given a role and a place on the periphery of the camp, surrounding the Mishkan and its Levites in the center.
Most indigenous peoples share a keen sensitivity to the compass points. Each direction carries a particular wind or force that can become our ally as we journey. We learn where to stand, where to face and how to open ourselves to those energies.
I LOOK TO THE EAST, with Issachar, Judah and Zebulon, to face the rising sun, opening to new beginnings, new possibilities.
I TURN TO THE SOUTH, with Gad, Reuben and Simeon, to receive warmth, comfort and constancy.
I LOOK WEST, with Manasseh, Ephraim and Benjamin, to find a vision of where my path must lead me.
I FACE THE NORTH, with Asher, Dan and Naphtali, and open myself to the wisdom of my ancestors, receiving their guidance and challenges.
I LOOK TO THE HEAVENS and open to the wide expanse.
AND I LOOK TO THE EARTH beneath me for grounding and support.
The blessing of Bamidbar places my soul at the center of the Mishkan, guarded and surrounded by the part of me that is mindful of holiness. And that circle is surrounded by the circle of my personality, which places itself in service to the soul. Each aspect stands in its place, knowing that it is the God-spark at the center that is in charge.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
EVERY ONE OF THE VOICES THAT CLAMOR inside me thinks that it is the sole TRUTH. The process of discernment requires great patience, self-compassion and often a good sense of humor.
As we begin to sort out our inner voices, we realize we contain different characters – some of whom would like to take charge of our lives but shouldn’t.
AN EXAMPLE: My husband and I were in the kitchen making lunch. He was fixing a cheese sandwich for himself. Earlier that day I had told him that I was trying to reduce my dairy intake because of allergies. Suddenly I turned to him and blurted out, “I want cheese!” My husband smiled and asked, “Who was that?”
The voice that had popped out of me was so young and petulant that it made us both laugh. When I examined where the voice came from, I saw that she was about five years old. She was pouting with frustration. Once I identified the voice, I felt compassion for the little girl, even as I let her know firmly and gently that she would not be deciding what was for lunch.
By listening carefully to the voices within, and identifying their source, we avoid becoming victims of that “parliament of personalities” within us which would pull us this way and that. Often their demands are the result of unhealed wounds from the past. Sometimes, the decisions made by the wrong aspect of our personality are more serious than what to eat for lunch. Great harm can be done to ourselves and others. An even more serious consequence is that we may never allow the holy and wise one within us a chance to be heard.
1 This is a phrase I learned from my teacher Paul Ray.
For Guideline for Practice please click link to website.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Portable holiness (Radical Torah repost)
Here’s the d’var I wrote for this week’s portion in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah. I also delivered it as a Friday night sermon at Temple Beth El, my parents’ congregation, on the occasion of the Shabbat before my mother’s birthday.
Late in this week’s Torah portion, B’midbar, we get a fascinating description of how the Israelites prepared the Mishkan, the tabernacle, for travel.
When it was time to break camp, the Torah tells us, Aaron and his sons would take down the screening curtain and cover the Ark with it. They would cover that with leather, and then with a cloth of pure blue. The table and its accoutrements — bowls, ladles, jars, tongs and fire-pans, libation jugs — would be wrapped in cloths of blue, violet, and crimson, and then in tahash, a yellow-orange leather sometimes translated as dolphin skin. Everything precious in the sanctuary, in fact, was wrapped first in cloth and then in skin, and loaded onto a set of carrying poles for easy transport.
These mentions of fabrics and skins may remind us of the Torah portions we read earlier this spring, which described in loving detail how the Mishkan should be constructed. An astonishing quantity of text is dedicated to the tabernacle and its details. In this week’s portion, we learn that the instruments of sacrifice were wrapped not just in cloths but in b’gadim, garments — a word that ordinarily denotes what people wear. These pieces of the sacrificial system were treated with the same respect as human beings! How can these passages speak to us today, so many centuries distant from a model of interaction with God which required libations and blood, incense and gold?
This week’s Torah portion offers instructions for how to make holiness portable. The Israelites spent forty years wandering — forty, a number that in the rabbinic imagination signified a time of full transition. Forty was the number of fruition. During these forty years of growth, the Israelites carried the Mishkan with them according to these instructions.
Today many of us spend our lives wandering, too, or at least move a few times from here to there. (As the bumper sticker says, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could.”) Certainly wandering is borne out in my history. My forebears were born in Eastern Europe, and emigrated to these shores, winding up in San Antonio. Leapfrogging part of the way back East, my sister and I are longtime transplants to Massachusetts. Thanks to the glories of air travel, we can cross these physical distances with ease, but the emotional journey of relocation shapes us even so.
But physical movement is only one part of the picture. Even for those who don’t move physically, life is inherently a form of travel. Our perspectives change as we grow and mature, as we come to see our old surroundings in a new light. The house one grew up in looks different at seven and at seventeen, and different still at seventy. So does one’s family.
In order for us to be healthy, we need some constancy through these moves and changes, through the leaving and arriving that we continually cycle through. Torah tells us in no uncertain terms what constitutes that consistency: we need to carry with us our individual and communal connection-point with God.
In this week’s portion God speaks to Moses b’midbar, “in the wilderness.” In the Israelites’ journey through that wild desert we can see a metaphor for our own transformation. Our lives, like the desert, can be both harsh and beautiful. We don’t always know where we’re going, nor how long it will take us to get there. And sometimes the voice of God is most audible when we create our own holy spaces, and when we make a practice of pausing in those spaces, surrounded by but separate from the hubbub of ordinary life.
Once upon a time the Mishkan provided a doorway, a conduit through which our conversation with God could flow. It allowed us to sanctify the passage of time, to make teshuvah and repent for our misdeeds, to show our gratitude to the Source of All. These are vitally important to our spiritual wellbeing, both as individuals and as a community. This week’s Torah portion reminds us that when we pack up to leave a place — whether physically or metaphysically — we must be sure to bring our relationship with God to wherever we are going.
If we could see it today, the Mishkan would seem strange to us. Beautiful, perhaps, but foreign, and maybe anachronistic. Today we relate to God not through sacrifice, but through study and prayer. (Indeed, the forthcoming Reform prayerbook is called Mishkan Tefilah, “tabernacle of prayer.”) Our connection to ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed One, is more portable than ever: not a landline but a cellphone. Any time I wrap myself in tallit and tefillin, or take a walk in the woods speaking aloud, or make a bracha, a blessing, my connection with God hums to life.
In the days of the Mishkan (and, later, the Temple,) sacrifices were offered on behalf of the community. Similarly, today there are prayers we can only say in community, when a minyan is present. Relating to God isn’t just something we do alone. Anywhere that ten gather, the Psalms tell us, the Shekhinah — the divine Presence — gathers, too. What’s important is not where we come together, but how. We may build beautiful synagogue structures to house our worship, but our fundamental connection with God arises not through these windows and bricks but through imrei-finu v’hegyon libinu, the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts.
Once upon a time Aaron and his sons, the forebears of the Levites, were tasked with dismantling and wrapping the Mishkan for travel. In the Reform movement today we have turned gently away from the divisions between Cohen, Levi, and Yisrael. Caring for our connection-points with God is no longer a Levitical duty. Each of us is responsible for discerning what instruments provide us with access to the Source of Blessing — prayerbooks, texts, breathtaking vistas, cherished melodies — and for wrapping them in our own cloths of pure crimson and blue, to carry with us all the days of our lives.
From Melissa Carpenter
Blue and Red
And Aharon will come, and his sons … and they will take down the covering curtain, and cover the Ark of the Testimony with it. Then they will place over it a covering of tachash skin, and they will spread a garment of perfect techeylet over that … Then they will spread out over the Table of the Presence a garment of techeylet, and they will place upon it the dishes, ladles, offering-bowl, jars of the libation, and perpetually renewed bread. And they will spread out over them a garment of fabric dyed scarlet, and then clothe it in a covering of tachash skin. (Numbers 4:5-8; Bemidbar)
tachash = An unknown word. Those who guess tachash is a treatment for leather translate it variously as tanned, blackened and water-proofed, blue-processed, and ochre-dyed. Those who guess tachash is the name of an animal translate it variously as badger, ermine, wild goat, wild ram, sea cow, narwhal, dolphin, or seal. Some commenta-tors argue in favor of the tachash being a marine animal, on the ground that its skin would make a waterproof covering.
techeylet = A dye derived from a Mediterranean snail. Translations for this word include: sky-blue, turquoise, aquamarine, indigo, purple, and pale blue-violet.
shani = a vivid red; crimson; scarlet
When you have a portable sanctuary, you need a procedure for packing up the holy items when it’s time to move on. In the Torah, the correct procedure is critical, since unauthorized contact with a holy object results in death. This week’s Torah portion describes at length how the priests and Levites must handle and transport the sacred items. Only Aaron and his two remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, are allowed to touch the holy items, so they must wrap everything in two or three coverings. The Levites are not allowed to watch the priests wrapping things, and can transport the sacred items only after they are completely concealed.
The Ark, and the table with its contents, get three coverings each, while the lamp-stand with its implements, and the golden incense altar with its equipment, get two coverings each. The outer covering for everything except the Ark is tachash skin, but the Ark gets an extra garment of techeylet fabric over the tachash skin. The table and its contents also get special treatment, with a middle wrapping of scarlet fabric.
Later, in Numbers 15:38, the Israelites are told to wear fringes on the corners of their own garments, with a thread of techeylet in each fringe, so that the sight of the fringe will remind them of everything God has commanded them to do. What color would be the best reminder? Sky blue, I think, since that’s the color of the pavement on which God’s feet appeared in the vision on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:10; see my blog “After the Vision” on Feb. 7). And sky blue is one of the most likely colors of techeylet.
An object is “holy” if it is set aside for God. Since sky blue is directly associated with God, it is used for the innermost wrapping of all the holy objects. The outermost wrapping of the Ark is also sky blue, to remind everyone that the Ark is the most holy object, the one associated with the voice of God.
Scarlet, on the other hand, is the color of fresh blood. In the Torah, blood represents the nefesh, the soul that animates the body. Why do the table and the objects on it get wrapped in scarlet? Perhaps the twelve loaves of bread on the table can be seen not just as a human offering to God, but as God’s offering to us humans—a reminder that God is in everything, even the food we eat. Our physical bodies could not live without God’s creation.
The Ark and the Table are lost now. Nevertheless, when we travel to a new place in our lives today, we should bring with us everything that has a holy meaning. And we should wrap these sacred objects, ideas, or words in garments that prevent us from treating them too familiarly—just as Jews today wrap the Torah scroll in a garment that both protects the hand-lettered parchment, and prevents us from taking the scroll for granted.
What color do you need to cover your own sacred thing? Sky blue, to remind you of God as the commanding, dangerous, and unimaginable voice above the Ark? Scarlet, to remind you that God is even in the bread we eat to keep our bodies alive? Or the color of tachash skins—which remains a mystery, like God?
Wendy’s Comment: For more about the Tachash, please read the post from Chabad.org
under the Parsha Terumah
Reb Sholom Brodt
Meaningful Life – Meaningful Living:
A Parshas Bamidbar Pre-Shavuot Meditation
Visualize yourself in the desert, present with your family, with your tribe and with your people as Moshe Rabbeinu conducts the census. When it will be your turn to pass in front of Moshe Rabbeinu and his brother Aharon, the Kohen Gadol you contribute your half-shekel, and state your name and the name of your parents. Visualize yourself in the presence of the holiest and most humble person in the world- your Rebbe – Moshe Rabbeinu, the servant of Hashem. You are elevated and you feel so worthy; you realize that you are unique and that you have a unique and purpose in the world. You are now aware and can honestly say “the world was created for my sake.”
But you don’t feel haughty. Instead you feel exalted and humbled at the same time and you sincerely pray that Hashem will help you fulfill your purpose and mission.
You also realize that every one else is also unique and that everyone has a special holy purpose in the world. You count no less than and no more than anyone else – Hashem desires every one of you and all of you.
Meditate on this and try to learn a lesson in humility. Learn how you too can make someone feel really important! Understand that only by your being fully present and your embracing every one else’s presence, will the Shechinah dwell in our midst; and so be present and unite, sincerely and joyously with all your brothers and sisters.
The Shabbos Before Shavuot
According to the Jewish calendar it always works that we read parshat Bamidbar on the Shabbos before Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah. Shabbos is the headquarters of all that is holy and the holiness of the upcoming holiday begins to descend on the preceding Shabbos.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that this Shabbos is similar to the Shabbos before a wedding, when the ‘chattan’ is called up to the Torah in spiritual preparation for the wedding. Shavuot is the great wedding between Hashem and B’nai Yisrael, and hence this Shabbos we prepare for our wedding.
The Rebbe explains that the fact that the Torah was given to us in Midbar Sinai, in the wilderness or desert of Sinai teaches us that we are to make a home for Hashem even in the wilderness, even in the desert. Hashem commands us and gives us the strength to build His sanctuary, a true and joyous Torah home and community even in a spiritual desert. Wherever we are we can and must connect to Hashem.
The Slonimer Rebbe teaches that the Shabbos before Shavuot provides us with the spiritual nourishment that we need in order to be ready to stand once again at Har Sinai, together with each other in unity, to receive the holy Torah. Indeed, parshat Bamidbar contains important lessons that we need to learn in preparation for receiving the Torah.
The Individual And The Community
As each individual was counted, or lifted up, they became aware of their uniqueness in the community. Each person is unique and possesses a unique place in the community. No one can take someone else’s place. It is so important to know that you really cannot take someone else’s place, to know that ‘you’ cannot ‘be’ in someone else’s place. ‘You’ have to be ‘yourself’ in ‘your place’ and I have to be ‘myself’ in ‘my place’; each one of us has to make our unique contributions towards the completion of Knesset Yisrael, the community of Israel, which is the vessel in which we receive the light of the Shechinah. Each one of us possesses a unique gift to contribute to home of Hashem, to the community of Israel, to the holy city of Yerushalayim, to Eretz Yisrael, and to the world.
A community is more than just a collection of individuals living in the same location and maybe even sharing similar beliefs. In the community that Hashem wants to dwell in, every individual person counts, and has their personal identity and unique place. Each individual is encouraged to contribute his or her real and unique talents to the community. Each individual welcomes and values and loves every other individual as well.
This is what we need to read in the Torah on the Shabbos before Shavuot. To receive the Torah, I have to receive it both as an individual and as a complete member of the community of Israel. To receive the holy Torah, we have to be one with each other and one with Hashem and one with the Torah.
Reb Avraham Greenbaum
The Beauty of Diversity
by Avraham ben Yaakov
The book of Numbers – fourth of the Five Books of Moses – opens with the people of Israel still encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai after receiving the Torah, but now poised to leave on their journey to their promised homeland where their mission would be to practice what they had been taught. For: “The main thing is not study but practical action” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:17).
Prior to the people’s departure from Sinai, Moses was instructed to take a census of the Twelve Tribes and assign them to their positions both when encamped and when marching, and to assign to the various families of the Levites their respective duties relating the Sanctuary, which was to be the central focus of the nation’s life.
The figures of Moses’ count recorded in our portion give the book of Numbers its traditional English name. For many Bible students the significance of the many details contained in this “national archive” of the people of Israel may be obscure. Yet it is noteworthy that the positions of the various tribes and families around the Sanctuary were by no means random.
“And God spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: ‘The children of Israel shall encamp each man by his flag according to the emblems of their paternal houses; they shall encamp at a distance facing the Tent of Meeting ‘” (Numbers 2:1-2).
Each of the tribes had their own ensign relating to the unique attributes of that tribe. For example, the sign of Judah, the royal tribe, was the lion, king of the beasts; that of Zebulun, a tribe of merchants, was a ship, while that of Issachar, famed for their astronomical knowledge, was the sun and the moon. The assigned positions of each tribe in groups to the east, south, north or west of the sanctuary were also bound up with their distinctive character traits, for in Torah teaching the directions of the compass all have their own special connotations. East, where the sun rises, signifies blessing, west signifies receiving, while south and north respectively signify kindness and strength.
The Torah here teaches us that we are not all required to try to be the same as one another, because each one of us is God’s unique creation, each with his or her own distinctive gifts and attributes.
“The greatness of the King of the kings of kings, the Holy One blessed be He, is seen in the fact that while a man may make many coins with one mould, all identical with one another, the Holy One blessed be He stamps every human in the mould of the archetypal Adam, yet not a single one is identical with any other” (Sanhedrin 38a).
What we must do is to learn how to dwell with one another together in harmony despite the many differences between us all. This can be done when everyone knows that they have their own special place, mission and function as part of God’s greater purpose, signified by the Sanctuary itself, which everyone had to face from a respectful distance.
Throughout history diversity has been and continues until this very day to be a source of conflict within and between families, social groups, nations and races, each attempting to dominate others and coerce them to their will and viewpoint. Too often people find it easier to continue old patterns of aggression and warfare instead of striving to make peace, which can only be done when we accept that within the transcendent unity of God there is room for different outlooks, viewpoints and ways of life, and that they can coexist peaceably as long as we agree on certain common denominators – above all, the prohibition of violence and murder, robbery and injustice, which are among the main pillars of the Universal Noahide Code of Law. If we will all look towards God’s “Sanctuary” – the Noahide Code, which contains the blueprint for universal peace – we will be able to live side by side with each other, all fulfilling their own unique mission in God’s greater plan.
Israel does not call upon all the peoples of the world to give up their own identity, individuality and traditions in order to convert to Judaism. Rather, they invite all nations to pursue their own unique missions and interests within the boundaries of what is permitted under the Noahide Code, while eschewing aggression, wanton violence and killing, exploitation and other prohibited behaviors.
Through increasing knowledge and awareness of God – Who transcends all opposites and contradictions – it will eventually be possible for all the different types and kinds of people to coexist peacefully, as in Isaiah’s prophetic allegory:
“And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them… They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of HaShem, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:6).
From Reb Zalman
The Underpinnings of Spiritual Intimacy
The following text by Reb Zalman is from this week’s Torah portion, Shabbos BaMidbar. [Notes by Gabbai Seth Fishman, BLOG Editor]:
(Numbers 4:2) Make a count of the sons of…, etc.
[NOTE: The Hebrew used, Naso et rosh / make a count has another meaning of “lift up the head.”]
Lifting up the head.
In order for the intellect to become a garment for the soul, the intellect has to spread itself and make a lot of wide space as follows:
(Psalms 24:7) Se’u / Raise up she’arim rosheichem / your mind’s imagination–
(Proverbs 31:23), Her husband is known b’she’arim / in the gates–
Read she’arim / gates as ha-hash’arot / the imaginal expansions, (i.e., awakeness as a shafel).
[NOTE: And read, “her husband” as referring to God.
Reb Zalman tells of a conversation with his daughter Shalvi as a young child:
“Abba, after you sleep, you wake up, right?”
“Yes” he replied.
“Abba, after you are already awake, can you wake up even more?”
I’ve heard Zalman often cite his late teacher, Reb Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch for cultivating the imaginal faculty in his hasidim.]
For, what the soul feels of divine light is transient; it very often passes by quickly even without giving the mind a chance to wrap the abundance that the soul received into an understanding. The intellect needs it packaged in subtlety and wisdom, as mystery teachings,
[NOTE: Kabbalah gives us language for the soul’s epiphanies, thereby making them more accessible to us and establishing the possibility for a social context for transpersonal experiences. ]
so that the intellect will be able to contain the light that was poured down into the soul.
The main point of the mystery teachings is not for giving someone a special reputation and pride, so they can brag, “I have a secret! I have a secret!” Rather, the point is to transform the holy flow into ideas with stretch
[NOTE: Elastic enough to accomodate multi-faceted experiences. What comes to mind is the Passover Seder: There is something in the Seder for us at every age of our lives, at every stage of our development. ]
so the enlightenment coming into the soul can dress itself into garments of speech and words thereby making the connection to the root of the person’s soul.
[NOTE: In “The Space Within,” Reb Zalman explains that the world of feelings is a murky realm without many words to describe it. It thus often remains hidden, and soul experiences remain unshared.]
And to this process, we must also add faith that the mystery teachings point to something that is real. Through this faith, that imaginal expansion caused by the soul’s epiphany can come into the intellect’s grasp.
[NOTE: I see this faith as belief in sovev kol almin or God transcendent. Mimale kol almin or God immanent without connection to sovev gives skepticism a space, keeps us at a distance from the light.]
That faith will be needed because, at times, the mystery teachings and the holy flow come from a source in conflict with popular beliefs.
Therefore, one who takes part in hir “tribe,” (a tribe in the sense that one’s soul root and their soul roots are one and the same, and in the sense that they all additionally believe that they share awareness of those elastic ideas), such a person will be able to also understand that lifting up one’s head, enabling comprehension, will bring the soul’s light also to feeling and to action.
And this is the language that connects the Rebbes with their hasidim because the Rebbes lift the consciousness to a higher level.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
from Yishmiru Daat (2009 revision),
“Parashat BaMidbar,” p. 34
From Rav Kook
BeMidbar: The Holiness of Sinai
Our sense of holiness and closeness to God is not constant. There are special times when we experience a heightened awareness. These moments reflect a kedushat sha’ah, a transient holiness.
Also in the life of the nation, there are special times of kedushat sha’ah. This is the central theme of sefer BeMidbar (Numbers), which recounts Israel’s unique experiences during their forty-year sojourn in the Sinai desert — a time when bread fell from the heavens and water spouted from rocks, a time of Divine protection and unparalleled prophetic revelation.
The book opens with the words,
“God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert in the Communion Tent….” (Num. 1:1)
The phrases ‘Sinai Desert’ and ‘Communion Tent’ are motifs repeated throughout BeMidbar. They call our attention to the special kedushat sha’ah of that generation.
Unlike Jerusalem’s permanent holiness, the holiness of Sinai was temporary, for the duration of Matan Torah. Unlike the permanence of the Beit HaMikdash — a bayit, a permanent structure — the Communion Tent was provisional — an ohel, a tent. And unlike the 613 mitzvot that apply to all times, the mitzvot that God commanded the Israelites in the desert — how to encamp, the signal blasts, the order of transporting the Tabernacle — were only for that generation.
One should not think that kedushat sha’ah is on a lower level than permanent holiness. On the contrary, it is precisely because of its lofty nature that this holiness cannot last forever. The deficiency is not in it, but in we who experience it. We are unable to maintain this level of holiness on a permanent basis.
One example of the temporary holiness of BeMidbar was the use of special banners for each tribe in the encampment. The Midrash explains that these flags were the result to Israel’s desire to emulate the angels. Angels appeared at Matan Torah in chariots bedecked with flags, and the Israelites desired to have similar flags. These flags represent the singular holiness of Mount Sinai and Matan Torah. They express the lofty holiness of angels, a holiness that the human soul is unable to fully attain.
Moses and Aaron
The dichotomy between temporary and permanent is reflected in that generation’s leaders: Moses and Aaron. Moses served as the kohen during the Tabernacle’s dedication — a priesthood of kedushat sha’ah that lasted one week. Aaron, on the other hand, commenced a lineage of kohanim for all generations. Even today, kohanim emphasize their connection to Aaron’s permanent holiness in their blessing, ‘Who sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron.’
The foundation of the Jewish people required both types of holiness. They needed both Moses and Aaron, both kedushat sha’ah and kedushah la-dorot. BeMidbar was an era of Divine providence and miracles, the historic revelation at Sinai and Moses’ unparalleled prophesy in the Ohel Moed. But it was also the time to establish the foundations for Israel’s permanent holiness, to set down the Torah and mitzvot that would guide all future generations.
(Adapted from Shemuot HaRe’iyah 5689 (1929).)
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Kedushat Levi on the census as sacred study
26 May 2011
This week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, speaks of a census taken by Moshe, a counting of the children of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai at God’s command.
The Hasidic rabbi known as the Kedushat Levi (Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) has a beautiful teaching which has changed the way I view this census recounted in Torah. He writes:
The souls of Israel are the body of the Torah, because the community of Israel make up the six hundred thousand letters in the Torah. We find that Israel is the Torah, for the soul of each person in Israel is like a letter in the Torah.
We find that when Moshe took an accounting, he was studying the Torah [which is embodied in the community itself]: that is the real meaning of God’s command.
This week in our lectionary we begin a new book of the Torah. In Hebrew this book is called Bamidbar, “In the Wilderness,” but in English this book’s name is “Numbers.” And yes, there are a lot of numbers here. Reading the census which begins the book, one could be forgiven for finding the material somewhat dry, a counting of distant ancestors who — if they ever had historical life at all — lived ages ago.
But Kedushat Levi teaches us to see otherwise. The soul of each of us is a letter in the Torah. When we look out at our assembled community, we can read the Torah which is embodied in who we are. In us, Torah takes living form. And, it stands to reason, if we want the whole Torah (which we do), then we need to ensure that the whole community “counts” — all of us, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, regardless of our politics, regardless of which denomination we call home.
The census wasn’t just a matter of counting heads in order to form an army. It was Torah study of the deepest kind: reading the divine letter which is at the spark of each of person’s soul, knowing that together they are something transcendent, more than the sum of their parts.
CENSUS (BAMIDBAR) 2008
Magnified and sanctified be the names in the census:
these print-outs piled on the kitchen island
like petals from some vast magnolia scented with toner;
these passenger manifests showing which ancestor
came when and lived with whom (and where.)
Family and boarders, all “Hebrew,” all literate, together!
Blurred and scanned, puzzled and deciphered: praise
the crabbed handwriting giving us (now)
all these names, each a part
of the great name, just as stars
are part of the galaxy, burning on and on.
And may we all remember, their descendants,
that Poland wasn’t black and white, but real, like here.
Endless database of names, hold our memories for us,
inscribe us on an everlasting hard drive, and we say: amen.
From Rabbi Avram Davis
Bamidbar: How we see each other
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
May 25, 2011
O holy Shabbes BeMidbar
Midbar means Wilderness
from the root — word or thing
The place of the word
or of no words
the place of the single word
the place of speaking
the word that works.
The matter, the thing
economy of words
heat of the matter
this is where it happened
the combustible puff of self
inscrutable chemistry of the desert sun
that is why we return there.
BeMidbar, in the Wilderness.
the language of truth
this is the thing [see Numbers 30:2].
Davar — the pure articulation
Midbar – the place
speaking from essence source
to essence source.
We are unfolding the essentials
encountering the midbar most deeply
as we are leaving it.
Isn’t that good storytelling –
not telling the full story until the end?
I watch my feet
Attentive to the next step –
The next step only.
Every Shabbat is associated with a musical figure
Hebrew cognate maqom
C  D [3/4] E half-flat [3/4] F
From American Jewish World Service
Rabbi Elliot Kukla.
Whenever I am on an airplane, the in-flight entertainment makes me cry. Even if what is playing is the most outrageously juvenile comedy or a lengthy infomercial, I find my eyes strangely misty. I used to think I was the only one, but when I began talking about this with my friends I found out that many people feel similarly vulnerable in the air. There is something about that sense of having already left home, but having not yet arrived at our destination, that strips us of our usual composure.
Parshat Bamidbar—which literally means “in the desert”—is all about this challenging time and space in between departure and arrival. It concerns the lengthy period of wandering in the desert after the Israelites left slavery but had not yet arrived in the land of milk and honey. Every year, we read this parshah in the middle of counting the omer, a ritual that marks the 49 days between Passover (Exodus from Egypt), and Shavuot (receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai). This moment of Jewish time is all about having left our point of origin, but not yet having arrived at our destination. We are neither here nor there.
In fact, most of the Torah takes place in this literal and metaphoric wilderness. There is a brief moment of being at home in Canaan in the beginning of the book of Genesis, but it’s followed quickly by exile and slavery in Egypt at the beginning of Exodus. The rest of the Torah is about the journey back to the Promised Land—a trip that is never quite completed.
Why is so much of the Torah and so much of the Jewish holiday cycle focused on the “in between”? Perhaps because most of life, as well, takes place in the desert—the biblical equivalent of floating in an airplane between where we left and where we’re going. Brief moments of clearly delineated arrivals or destinations—like graduation, the birth of a child or the beginning of a much-anticipated promotion—often punctuate long periods of waiting and wandering.
This is also true in our lives as global justice activists. As seekers of justice we often only feel productive when our work leads to a clear accomplishment—the passing of legislation, the prohibition of an injustice, the saving of a life. These moments of arrival are important and energizing, but so are all the steps in between.
It’s important to realize that just because we have not arrived at a destination, it doesn’t mean we are nowhere at all. After all, the wilderness is a place to be. Anyone who has spent time in the desert soon sees that what looks empty is actually gloriously alive. It is filled with odd bugs and countless grains of sand, broad horizons and sparkling stars. Likewise, the desert zones of our justice work are alive. Advocating for debt forgiveness (even if it is not yet accomplished) can lead to change down the road, and may help us refine our understanding of fairness; donating money (even if we don’t yet have a lot to give) makes a difference to those who receive it, and helps us to experience generosity; learning more about global health issues (even if these problems are not yet resolved) is a step toward change and helps us to appreciate our own moments of health and healing.
The Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, is euphonically linked to m’daber, speaking. God speaks to us in the wilderness because when we are in between familiar landscapes we are open-hearted and can truly listen. When we are at a moment of arrival or departure we think we know what justice looks like; but it is in the wilderness, as we wander toward our next oasis, that we are stripped of certainty and hence vulnerable and open to new ideas and possibilities for what change might look like.
Perhaps in some cases actually reaching the destination isn’t even the goal. The generation of Israelite slaves never made it to the Promised Land, but it was during a nebulous period of wandering in the middle of the desert that they became a cohesive people. Likewise, as we struggle for justice in our own time, may we appreciate the moments of being in the wilderness on the way to social change, since this might be where the real change is happening after all. It’s important to remember that each step of wandering along the road towards justice, no matter how lost we feel, is wholly holy.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Reb Mimi Feigelson
This Shabbat, we journey through the desert / Ba’Midbar. It is crucial to know that we are all teachers and students. In the wisdom that we share what we have to share, in our questions we have what to learn. I pray that as a community we find those in our lives that we help shine in God’s world, and I pray that we find those that enable us to shine. May it be a peaceful and bright Shabbat for all of us.
Monday the 12th of Iyar, 5771 / May 16th, 2011
Torah Reading: Numbers 1:1-4 – 4:20
Haftarah Reading: Hosea 2:1-22
In our studies during the second semester we looked at Rabbinic sources from the Gemara, the halacha / the code of law, and even some Chassidic sources that dealt with models of leadership. It was a means for us to understand how we stand in the world as rabbis, and what the strengths and challenges of the multiple paradigms are. It was also an opportunity for us to look at ourselves and question ‘how is it that we, individually, see our path in leadership?’
Hiding among the plethora of sources is a line from the Tosfote Yom Tov, Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller, who was a student of the MaHaRaL of Prague and a Rabbinic Leader in the first half of the 17th century. He is most known for his extensive commentary on the Mishna.
The second chapter of Bava Metzia, “Elu Metzi’ote”, deals with returning lost objects to their owner. At the end of the chapter we’re taught that after one tends to their own lost objects, primacy goes to lost objects of their teacher. While the Mishna uses the phrase “Rabo” / “his Rabbi,” the Talmud and Rashi on the page clarify that we are speaking of a special Rav – the one, that a student “has learned most of their wisdom from”/. It may be wisdom in Torah, or Talmud, or Codes, or Philosophy or even Chassidic thought (without being too personal…). The unique phrase that is used is “Rabo Ha’Muvhak” – one’s outstanding teacher.
But the Tosfote Yom Tov takes on the hat of a linguist and says that Muvhak doesn’t mean outstanding but rather derived from the word Bohak / shining. That a Rav Muvhak is a teacher that makes their student shine. This is the Rav that takes primacy in the life of a student. The teacher, the Rav that makes their student shine.
Over the years I have allowed myself to expound on this teaching and speak also of the concept of a ‘Talmid Muvhak’, not in its original Rabbinic meaning – a designated student, one that carries the Torah of their teacher in an outstanding way – but rather, paraphrasing the Tosfote Yom Tov, a Talmid Muvhak is a student that makes their teacher shine!
When standing exactly one week from Israel’s 63rd Independence Day my mind drifts in two directions. The first is that Gilad Shalit is sitting in captivity since most of you started rabbinical school five years ago. Not that I’m comparing the two… And second, of a story that I, like every other child growing up in Israel, grew up with – Chanaleh and Her Shabbat Dress.
It is a story of Chanaleh that receives a beautiful new white dress for Shabbat and in her excitement she goes outside, waiting to greet the Shabbat queen with her new dress. Subsequently an old man, carrying a sack of coal is sitting by the side of the road, tired from the heavy burden that he is carrying. Chanaleh offers to help him, and only after she parts from him does she see that her new dress is stained with coal spots. She starts to cry and the moon tries to console her. He asks if she is sorry that she helped the man, to which she responds “No.” The moon tells her to go home, and promises that he will help her. When she enters her home, the moon shines upon her the most glorious rays of light, that make her dress shine even brighter than it was when she left the house!
I know you are thinking, why is Reb Mimi sharing a story of a girl and her dress to an ordaining class of only men???
Dear ones, when you come up to the Bima in just a moment, you will receive a shinning new talit; one that will hold you in prayer, and distinguish you in your service of God. I pray that it doesn’t stay white for long! I pray that you walk in the streets of God’s world, and your rabbinic cloak carries the many stains of all those that you help along the way, easing their burdens. That you find those sitting on the side of the road, and help them find their way Home; that you return them to their owner, bring their souls back to God. That you walk with them with such sincerity, that you forget, for a moment, about your beautiful talit. And that when God asks you of the challenge of not being able to study more, to learn more, to write more because your time has been ‘tainted’ by demands of others, that you, like Chanaleh, are grateful for the gift of being a helping hand and soul, and do not regret the time spent with your sojourners.
I pray that you yourself become a Rav Muvhak, one that makes others shine, that you find ways to illuminate their beauty. And I pray that those you encounter along the way are your Talmidim Muvhakim – those that make you shine, as you walk the path of your Rabbinate.
Dear ones, I part from you as Reb Shlomo, my teacher, taught me to bless our children every Shabbat: when you entered Ziegler we sang to you / “shalom aleichem” – we greet you in peace / “bo’achem l’shalom – may your presence with us bring you peace and clarity of your vision and mission in God’s world; / “bar’chuni l’shalom” – may you bless us, your teachers, with the wisdom and insight to walk with you, as you need to be escorted; / “tzetchem l’shalom” – may your journey into the rabbinate, and the unfolding of your divine work, be blessed with peace; and last, as in the S’fardic tradition that I hold by for decades, / “shivt’chem l’shalom” – may you sit in peace, may you find communities and partners that will support you in your work. And in an improper grammatical reading – may you return in peace – may you come back to visit, to call, to write. May you never forget, that for us, your rabbi’s and teachers at Ziegler you are always connected to us, and always have a home in our hearts.
Mazal tov and I love you very much.
Wendy’s Comment: This beautiful teaching can apply to all of us who are teachers for each other.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
What’s in a Name? (5771/2011)
In Parshat Bamidbar, Moshe and Aharon conduct a census of the Israelites, with the help of the tribal leaders. Though each individual is counted, Torah only tells us the names of the tribal leaders. They have unusual names, such as:
God is My Rock son of God is Light
Diviner son of My Generous People
God’s Abundance son of Knowing God
Perhaps these are symbolic names they take when they commit to positions of leadership, names that express national values in their spiritual community. A look at the Hebrew language supports this.
The Hebrew word for name is shem. When we speak of acting for the sake of something, we say we are acting l’shem – in the name of – that thing. In Kabbalistic Hebrew, the shem of God means any manifestation of God’s presence. With their names, the leaders have pledged to act for the sake of their values, and to help make God’s presence manifest in the community.
What’s in your name? If it was a gift from your parents, what did they mean to transmit to you? If it is shared with a partner or spouse, what values does your choice to share a name express? If you chose it yourself, what did you pledge to bring into the world? In what way would you like your life to count?
Census Projections (5772/2012)
We usually speak negatively about psychological “projection.” And no wonder! We notice when others project thoughts and feelings onto us. For example, if someone had a difficult childhood relationship with a sibling, they may see their relationship with us in the same way. No matter how unique our behavior is, they respond only to what they think and feel. Sometimes the process seems hurtful; yet sometimes we gather the courage to name it.
Consider that “projection” can sometimes be a positive, transformative experience. Thoughts we might hide even from ourselves are projected onto the big screen of the world. There we can finally see the themes and yearnings that drive us.
Torah study at the Or Shalom Retreat gave us some insight into positive projection. Participants in the “Grind” Torah Study workshop posed a question: How is Parshat Bamidbar’s discussion of an ancient census relevant to us? One reader saw the counting process as a spiritual metaphor. Another saw in the census numbers a numerological code that expresses the world’s physical and social structures. A third saw in the design of the camp a structure for loosely organizing large groups. And I saw in the name of the leader Nachshon ben Aminadav – Snake son of My People are Humble – an ancient Israelite respect for fellow creatures.
Each of us thinks our insight is “really in” the Torah. At the same time, each of us thinks everyone else’s insight is a reflection of their personality and interests! Torah becomes the screen onto which we project the inner lenses we take for granted. As we study in a group, we each get to show our lens, and receive meaningful feedback on it, learning more about the themes that drive our lives.
From Chaya Lester
B’Midbar: Stand on Your Flag!
We read in this week’s parsha about the architecture of the tribes’ encampments in the desert. The text makes a point of mentioning that each individual is to pitch by their flag, “eish al diglo”. (Numbers 2:2) Midrash Rabba elaborates on this image beautifully, telling us that Revelation at Sinai was attended by twenty-two thousand chariots of angels, each one decked out with flags. The Israelites saw the angels’ flags and greatly desired to have flags of their own, to which God readily agreed.
What was so desirable to the people about these angelic banners?
The Netivot Shalom suggests that the reason each angel bears a flag is that each has its own unique mission. After all, the Hebrew word for angel, malach, literally means ‘messenger’. An angel is a divinely encoded message, capable of performing one mission and one mission alone.
Human beings, on the other hand, are eclectic and multifaceted. We are awash with multiple messages and meanings. In this sense, it would be anathema to suggest that the complexity of our lives could be encompassed by a single strip of fabric. And yet, that is the beauty of a flag. It is a concise, if over-simplified, symbol or sign of something much vaster. It makes sense that the word following flag in the text is “b’otot – as a sign”. Flags are essentially signs, signifiers of something else.
Just look at our most commonly used flags – words. The word ‘love’ is a single syllable that represents an inexhaustible array of meanings, feelings, actions. A hundred million poems worth of meaning are encoded in that single banner of a word. This consolidation of multiple meanings into a single sign of utterance is the basis of human expression. All language is, in fact, sign language.
As we see in the Midrash, the people of Israel admired the angelic single-mindedness of this type of flagging and desired it for themselves. They yearned, as we all do, to consolidate and express their own singular message and calling in the world. For sometimes we can get lost in the myriad missions we are moved to enact. Something wonderful happens when we are able to focus, to take the rich ineffable girth of our lives and concentrate it into a singular encompassing expression.
And yet our flags are essentially different from those of the angels. We return to the phrase, “eish al diglo”. While this often gets translated as “every man under his flag”, the word “al” does not mean “under” at all. On the contrary, it means “above”. What could this subtle and surprising detail connote?
I would augur that while it might be that angels stand under the flag of their singular mission, we humans are granted the gift of having flags, yet standing above them. We have the ability to be at once focused, as well as limitless. We are complex and multifarious, and that itself is an essential part of our calling and mission in the world.
Our goal is to stand above our flags, to use them but not to be used or limited by them. To claim our calling in the world and enact it with grace and commitment, but also to embrace the widest possible vision of ourselves. And in this we are more transcendent than even angels. In this we are replicas of the limitless Divine.
Integration exercise: Of all the talents and passions that God has gifted to you, attempt to focus in on one symbol that somehow encompasses or signifies it all. What is a single simplified symbol of the mission which is yours and yours alone to enact in life? Chose a word, a phrase, a picture, an emblem. Make your flag and fly it. Know that this is a symbol that signifies your essence. Also know that you stand above that flag and are so much more than can be placed on a rectangular form.
A coat capacious
to capture the wind
A consolidation of self
into a spot to sing from
A sign you are going
a sign you have come
A sign you have made it
a sign you’ll make more
A whisper, unmediated
what standing stands for
A chorus of symbol
a cipher of self
With this four-cornered fabric
your essence is spelt
And yet beyond spelling
beyond signals and signs
your highest expression
out of the lines.
Rabbi Adam Greenwald
Seen and Unseen
Torah Reading: Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftarah Reading: Hosea 2:1-22
“The total number was 603,550” – Numbers 1:46
The Book of Numbers begins with a head count of the entire Jewish People, before they depart from their Sinai encampment, on the way to the Promised Land. Moses organizes this massive endeavor, with the help of representatives from each of the Tribes, and in the end comes to a count of approximately 600,000 people who make up the Israelite nation.
Bamidbar Rabbah (2:13) records the famous teaching that just as there were six hundred thousand Jews at Sinai, there are six hundred thousand letters in the Torah. This beautiful midrash has given rise to countless sermons about the value of the individual – just as a Torah requires each and every little letter in order to be complete, so too our community needs every single one of us. Absolutely lovely stuff.
However, there is an itsy-bitsy problem. The Torah does not contain 600,000 letters. In fact, not even close to it! The Torah contains just about half that number, at 304,805. While the rabbis lacked the sophisticated software that can produce an accurate count like that in seconds, they surely knew that their count was off by an entire order of magnitude. What then can that midrash be understood to mean?
The mystical tradition has long taught that the black letters of the Torah scroll only make up half the story; the other half – and potentially the more revealing truths – are contained in the white spaces that accompany each letter. Just as in conversation where what is not said is often more important than what is actually spoken aloud, the white spaces that surround the black letters are equally vital to understanding what Torah is trying to teach us. Counting the white spaces, along with the black letters, we arrive at 600,000 – and the midrash is saved!
Yet, another, more troubling contradiction lurks below the surface of this text. When the Torah records that 600,000 stood at Sinai, it is again only telling half the story. As feminist critics like Judith Plascow, Rachel Adler, and others have taught us – a closer look at the text reveals that twice that number participated in Revelation and twice that number marched from the mountain. The Torah records only the names and stories of the men, the women who stood aside them have been erased from our counting. Again, half is visible and half, invisible.
Just as our understanding of Torah is only complete when we count both the black letters and the white spaces, our understanding of ourselves is only complete when we notice the whole community. That means really seeing those who have traditionally counted and those who have been excluded, who have historically faded into the background like the white spaces.
Let’s teach our eyes to see the whole of what is in front of us, both light and dark, both seen and unseen.
From the Maqam Project
Is BaMidbar not an essential/etsem component of YHWH’s extending chesed, to include chanan, the gift of a bit of latitude He extends to us, as He transitions us from the kingdom of darkness/death, into His kingdom of Light/Life? The former place being where it is we are wholly and totally working to save ourselves, to that of helping YHWH in saving us, to BaMidbar’s conclusion where it is we’re wholly and totally dependent upon YHWH to save us Himself going into Dabarym, and this followed by then proceeding into Yahwsha – and all that Yahwsha stands/represents?
Came across Your blog, and since I was focusing on BaMidbar, and how it does seem to me, my opinion, that BaMidbar is YHWH manifesting His chesed and chanan as He shows and demonstrates in Yisra’el Himself as our lone Savior – and those who make the journey/arach to reach Dabarym prior to Yahwsha/the Promised Land, no longer helping, only trusting and relying upon G-d/Elwhym to yasha/save us…
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Law as Love
From Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
UNIVERSAL TORAH: BAMIDBAR
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
Torah Reading: Numbers 1:1-4:20
Haftara: Hosea 2:1-22.
IN THE WILDERNESS
It was fitting that the Giving of the Torah took place in no-man’s-land amidst the stark desolation of the Wilderness. Here no temporal king could claim that he played host to the event, thereby meriting a special share in the glory. The Children of Israel were chosen to receive the Torah not because they were the most glorious, but because their hearts had been broken through exile and slavery. For the only way to receive the Torah is through humility, symbolized in the lowly Mount Sinai.
Having been appointed as guardians of the Torah, the task of the Children of Israel was to bring it up from Sinai to the Promised Land, from which they were to shine its light to all the inhabitants of the world. Genesis traces the roots of the Torah and of the souls of Israel who were to be its bearers, and Genesis is thus the “head” of the Torah. Exodus is the “hands”, describing how G-d redeemed the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt “with a mighty arm” and made them into a unique nation through the gift of the Torah and the presence of His Sanctuary in their midst as the focus of their national life. Leviticus is the “heart” of the Torah, setting forth its main laws in all areas of life.
Now we come to the Book of Numbers — the “legs” — tracing the journeying of the Children of Israel on foot through the wilderness to the borders of the Promised Land, with all the accompanying trials and tribulations. Our parshah of BAMIDBAR begins in the Wilderness of Sinai, almost a year after the Children of Israel’s arrival to receive the Torah. By now they had been taught all the main laws of the Torah, and the Sanctuary was in place and fully functional. The next stage was to take to the road and carry the Ark of the Covenant — encompassing the entire Torah — up to the land. The commandment to Moses with which BAMIDBAR opens, to take a census of the people and organize them by tribes, was a preparation for their departure from Sinai, which is narrated in BEHA’ALOSCHA (Numbers ch. 10).
As described in our parshah, the twelve tribes of Israel were to be encamped around the Sanctuary in four groups of three tribes each. When they traveled through the wilderness, they were to travel in the same formation. The positions of the twelve tribes were the same as those of Jacob’s twelve sons when they carried his funeral bier from Egypt to the Cave of Machpelah.
Ramban (Nachmanides) opens his commentary on BAMIDBAR by pointing out that the way the people encamped around the Sanctuary was directly parallel to the way they encamped around Sinai at the time of the Giving of the Torah. We find in next week’s parshah that they were commanded to send those who were ritually impure away from the Sanctuary and out of the camp (Numbers 5:1ff). This parallels the command to Moses to put boundaries around Mount Sinai at the time of the Giving of the Torah — for “the stranger who draws near will die” (1:53; 18:7). At the end of our present parshah, we learn that even the Levites, whose task was to carry the Sanctuary parts during their travels, were forbidden to see the Sanctuary in its “moment of shame” while being dismantled (Numbers 4:20). Correspondingly, the Israelites at Sinai were forbidden to break through and go up the Mountain in order to feast their eyes.
These and other parallels point to the profound conceptual link between the Sanctuary (and Temple) and the Giving of the Torah. The Giving of the Torah at Sinai was a one-time event: the Torah “came down” from heaven to earth, providing man with a ladder of ascent to G-d. Having come into this world, the Torah had to remain the central focus of our attention forever afterwards. The Ark of the Covenant with the Tablets of Stone and Moses’ Torah scroll thus had pride of place in the Holy of Holies at the very center of the Sanctuary, with the Twelve Tribes encamped around it. [Similarly, in the Synagogue, it is customary to read the Torah from a desk in the middle of the Synagogue among all the people.]
From the Wilderness of Sinai, the Children of Israel were to carry the Ark of the Covenant up to the center-point or “navel” of the earth in Jerusalem, “for the Torah will go out from Zion and the word of HaShem from Jerusalem”. This was the spot where Jacob dreamed of a ladder joining earth back to heaven. The Hebrew word for ladder is SuLaM, which has the same numerical value as SINaI (=130).
The Sound of Silence
Becoming Like the Wilderness
BY EITAN FISHBANE, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF JEWISH THOUGHT
With the start of Sefer Bemidbar, the narrative of the Torah turns to the long journey of Benei Yisrael through the wilderness—punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf and preparation for entry into the Land of Israel. Passage into the sacred terrain first requires an arduous ordeal of wandering—a physical process of movement and quest. Penitence, pilgrimage, and transformation are anchored in the space of wilderness.
Moshe, too, after killing the Egyptian and prior to his divine call to leadership, retreats to the wilderness, a period of withdrawal into a space outside the habitation of society. It was only in that space, R. Bahya ben Asher suggests, far from the yishuv (dwelling place) of the population, that Moshe could reenact the prophetic encounter of his ancestors, a withdrawal for the sake of spiritual and moral elevation (commentary to Exod. 3:1). Like Moshe the solitary shepherd, the people of Israel must undergo a spiritual transformation, a process of purification—from the impure state of idolatry to the refined condition necessary to enter the holy land. This purification is represented by the desolate nature of the wilderness—a vast emptiness that facilitates a breakthrough in mind and soul. As Kathleen Norris has written, evoking life on the Great Plains of Dakota as a spiritual practice:
Here the eye learns to appreciate slight variations, the possibilities inherent in emptiness. It sees that the emptiness is full of small things… A person is forced inward by the spareness of what is outward and visible in all this land and sky… Maybe seeing the Plains is like seeing an icon: what seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and holy state (Dakota, pp. 156-7).
The experience of what appears to be emptiness is an opening into another state of spiritual perception, an opening of the heart into the concealed indwelling of divine holiness. The sublime interior of the human soul is revealed in that moment of mystery and grandeur before the vastness of the All.
Likewise, R. Bahya asks, restating an earlier midrashic teaching (Tanhuma, 6; Bemidbar Rabbah, 1:7): why does the Torah emphasize God’s speech to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai (בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי)? It was to teach that “a person does not attain the Torah until they have made themselves empty and abandoned like the wilderness” (אין אדם קונה התורה עד שיעשה עצמו הפקר כמדבר) [commentary to Num. 1:1]. To receive the revelation of Torah—or perhaps a bit less grandly, to let Torah take root in one’s heart—a person must first make themselves into a midbar, an inner empty wilderness that is cleared of all the weeds and brush that obstruct true perception and feeling. A wilderness that returns to the first purity of nature.
Just as divine revelation and the Torah arise from the physical space of wilderness, of midbar—at the burning bush and then at Mount Sinai—a heart infused with divine Torah arises through a person’s mindful cultivation of their own interior wilderness. One should seek to attain the level of hefker—of feeling unbound by the pride and egoism of ownership, of being unattached to materialism. In hefker consciousness, we train our spiritual sight to see the Divine Presence that dwells beneath the surface, beneath the many golden calves of our obsessions, possessions, and wayward priorities. This is a radical reinvention of the concept of hefker, a neutral halakhic category of abandonment and ownerlessness (e.g. BT Eruvin, 45b).
In this transformed reading, the midbar may be said to embody a pure state of emptiness—an inner cleansing that allows us to go deeper into the spiritual path. Becoming hefker kemidbar is a process of letting go of our imprisonment in materiality, in ephemeral and finite desires—to be liberated into the vastness of an inner wilderness. As R. Nahman of Bratzlav taught (Likutei Moharan I:52), the most profound opening of the heart to God takes place in the physical space of darkness and wilderness, the frightening ground of loneliness and alienation. It is in hitbodedut (solitude) that we are able to empty our minds and hearts of society’s overwhelming drumbeat, where the ultimate bitul hayeish (erasure of superficial, mundane consciousness) becomes possible, and we are truly opened in all of our vulnerability before Divinity. In that place of midbar, we are able to break open the heart in ways we didn’t know were possible, to cry out to God from a place of the deepest emotional honesty. The midbar is an inner place of psyche as much as it is a terrestrial location.
But it was hefker kemidbar as a state of moral piety that was first articulated by the Sages (see BT Sanhedrin, 49a; Bahya ben Asher, Kad Hakemah, “Orhim”; Metzudat David on I Kings 2:34), and this interpersonal dimension remains a powerful feature of the ideal to which we aspire. As these sources teach, one should make one’s home hefker kemidbar, free and open for all—cultivating an ethic of hospitality in which the poor and the less fortunate feel free to come and be cared for. The model of wilderness, of midbar, is here taken to be an inspiration to live a life of openness and kindness toward other human beings. As the modern monk Thomas Merton said: “The speech of God is silence. His Word is solitude…It is in deep solitude and silence that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brother and my sister” (Entering the Silence, 2:398). In this reading, hefker is understood in the most charitable and positive sense of “free for all,” as opposed to the more pejorative meaning of hefker as a chaotic and uncontrolled “free-for-all.” The openness of a midbar-state-of-being is one that inspires kindness and generosity: the gentleness needed to sincerely love one’s fellow person. That gentleness is the silent speech of God flowing though man and woman to be realized as moral living. Integrating Merton’s insight with the Jewish sources we have considered, the retreat of solitude is filled with the living word of God, the breath of divine sustenance. It is our spiritual work to let that divine solitude refine the openness and gentleness with which we treat our fellow human beings.
To paraphrase the teaching: You will attain the true soul of Torah only when you have made yourself hefker kemidbar—a person cleansed of superficial obsessions, gentle and generous toward other people, one who has nullified the grip of pride and egoism. As the early Hasidic rebbe R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk (Pri Ha’aretz, Letter 27) taught, true wisdom and humanity rises from the cultivation of deep humility:
The Torah only stands firm in one who makes himself like a midbar hefker before those who are poor of mind and rich of mind, and he doesn’t think of himself as better than his friend. On the contrary, he should be completely nullified before his friend, and it is through this that they become united and bound up one with the other.
True spiritual refinement, the deepest attainment of hefker kemidbar, must not remain at the level of individualistic mystical growth and the personal quest for divine revelation. To realize the ideals of piety, to ensconce the living Torah in the wholeness of oneself, a person must aspire toward a genuine humility, to avoid the harmful path of judgmentalism and arrogance. It is in the bond of loving friendship and fellowship, in kindness and humility toward the other, that the Torah—and God—are most radiantly revealed.
Wendy’s comment: I also have been inspired by the book, Dakota
From Rabbi David Kasher
Flags of Love and War
“Speaking of Wilderness”
By Dr. Tamar Frankiel
Bamidbar: In the desert. A new sefer begins a tale of wilderness life which will end, some 38 years later, with the passing of leadership from Moshe to Yehoshua before entering the land of Israel.
This particular parsha focuses primarily on taking a census, organizing the tribes, and distinguishing the Levites. The framework is a marshalling of the troops, generally for the travel through the desert – which no one knows at this point will be “40 years” – and perhaps for war.
This preparation is carefully organized. The census of the tribes is completed in good order. Their arrangement in the camp and is described in detail. The number of Levites is carefully aligned with the number of first-born males as priestly duties are about to be shifted to the Levites. In the last aliyah of the parsha, the duties of the tribe of Kohath are described regarding the precise preparations for travel with the vessels of the sanctuary. God insists that Aaron supervise; he is concerned that the Kohathites be protected in this most holy work, “lest they die.”
The next parsha continues with the other clans of the Levites in their duties. In many ways, Bamidbar and Nasso continue the concern with priestly purity that we encounter in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus). The people depend on their relationship with God, and that in turn depends on the devoted service of all the families of the Levites, to the purity and proper operation of the Mishkan. They are examples of devotion for the rest of the people, in moral and religious ways.
And yet – Bamidbar also points toward something else. The English name of the book that begins here emphasizes the census, by calling it “Numbers.” But the word Bamidbar meaning “in the Wilderness” or “in the Desert” has a different tonality. Moreover, the word can be vocalized differently in Hebrew, so that the consonants of midbar become medaber, meaning a speaker. This is a hint to another reality in the book of Bamidbar: how we speak, how we use our linguistic ability. And be-medaber, what is inside the speaker.
In Bamidbar and the following parsha, God is the one who speaks, setting forth the order of things. But when the people begin traveling, we soon we hear another kind of speech, what the Torah calls mitonenim, murmuring, “speaking evil in the ears of the Lord.” (11.1). At first, one might think this is relatively normal. The complaints center around the food – and isn’t that typical for an army? God resolves the problem by sending quail.
But other issues rapidly emerge. In the next chapter, Miriam and Aaron speak against Moshe: “Are we not prophets also?” Among the highest leadership we suddenly see dissension and jealousy. The false report of the spies – another select group of leaders – occupies parshat Shelach. In the following round of trouble, even the Levites, those whom God chose to take the place of the first-borns, enter the fray: Korach starts a nasty argument over authority. He adds another layer of disturbance, crafting his language carefully to confuse the people. The Sages call this genaiva da’at, “stealing the mind.” Eventually, silence descends – it’s not clear exactly when, but the silence itself is deadly. People are dying and being buried in the desert every year for the sin of the spies. Then, near the end of the 40 years, in parshat Chukat, Miriam dies, and then Aaron. Now their leaders are disappearing, and the people complain again, this time of lack of water. They provoke an ugly confrontation with Moshe, who we should remember is grieving over the loss of his sister, and who now bursts out in angry speech. Then comes the story of the prophet Balaam who claims to be a professional in language – the language of cursing.
The external order begins so elegantly: the order of an army, the precision of the priests. But internally, says Bamidbar, there is a desert, a wilderness, at the hearts of the people. Fear, doubt, jealousy, insecurity affect everyone from hungry youths to experienced leaders. Their emotions burst out in words of desperation, anger, challenge. What will we eat? Are we not prophets also? Why did you send us here to die? We look like grasshoppers in their eyes! You take too much on yourselves! Listen, you rebels!
Bamidbar deliberately gives us the perfection of an opening scene, like a peaceful castle before the hordes descend. Its name, however, portends something quite far from perfection, alerting us to listen to the wildness, the “bewilderments” that tear societies apart. In many ways Sefer Bamidbar is an astute social psychology of leadership and its discontents. It reminds us that the most artful design, the greatest mechanical precision, the most careful counting and accounting, do not begin to touch the alchemical fires of the human heart.
From Maggid Jhos Singer
This week’s parasha opens the fourth book of Moses, Bamidbar/In The Wilderness (the book is known in English as Numbers, so named because it opens with a long, complicated census). Only the men are counted in a series of tallies, organizing them by tribe, age, and fighting ability. It’s a draft of sorts. The tribes are given positions where they will camp around the Mishkan. The camps are large, ranging from 32,200 to 74,600 men. But one tribe—Levi—is notably missing.
God spoke to Moses, saying, “Surely, do not count the tribe of Levi; do not calculate their number together with the children of Israel.” (Bamidbar 1:48-9)
The tribe of Levi was small (22,000) and strange. Not destined to be warriors, the Levites were instead ordained to serve the spiritual needs of the people. Their lot was to carry out communal rituals, redeem individual failings, facilitate healing, and to tend and maintain the spiritual center of the camp. Surrounding that center were the other tribes, each bearing its own name and flag.
The Children of Israel shall camp, each with his flag, as a sign of their father’s house, they shall camp around the tent of meeting at a distance. (Bamidbar 2:2)
This week was particularly tough in the realm of geo-politics—lots of flag waving, lots of tribes, lots of death, lots of pain. The need for healing, redemption, and community is great. But instead of pulling together, we saw tribe attacking tribe. Our spiritual center in disarray, our Levites scrambling for higher ground, our hearts broken and our bile boiling. The ancient social system laid out in this week’s Torah portion was non-operational.
According to contemporary Chasidic thought, the Levites of today are those who walk the spiritual path of Torah study. The discipline required to navigate our weird, sometimes disturbing, always challenging, dreamtime spirit-text strengthens the mind to transcend the limitations of this world. This is the path of spiritual transformation, which, in turn, is the path of material transformation.
I can hear you thinking, “Oh come on, Jhos, do you really expect us to believe that studying Torah is going to bring an end to the conflict in the world?” Well, yeah, I do. And here’s why: our Torah is a mere hologram of our world, and the sooner we can navigate it with grace and calm, wisdom and insight, the sooner we can apply our learning to our daily grind. Torah study is life practice.
I have heard the criticism that Torah is sexist, violent, abusive, angry, patriarchal, xenophobic, chauvinistic, and fear-mongering. Yeah, of course it is. How else would it show us how ugly we can be? The spiritual practice of study is to recognize that the Torah is not endorsing those things, but rather inviting us to see them as malleable, repairable, and in need of healing. The text invites us to encounter what is grotesque and depraved in a safe place, a realm where we can slow down, look deeply, and let our soul’s wisdom guide us into and through the brokenness in the real world. It provides us with an arena to encounter the other, deal with adversity, and enter the shadows. Think of it as an ancient version of a D&D* spirit quest.
As in this week’s parasha, while flag wavers and warriors are in the majority, they will never be the nucleus of the community. The community’s core is spiritual. And when we exercise our spiritual minds we align with the Levites. Armed only with sharp vision, deep compassion, and intense faith, the Levites cultivate their ability to gather us, contain us, and heal us. Fearlessly they stand before the wounded, without judgment. They minister.
May this Shabbat bring us back to our own spiritual centers. May we find the strength and tenderness, courage and kindness, power and humility to live in the heart of our Torah, in the heart of our community, and in the heart of our one true soul.
* Dungeons and Dragons
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