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Parshat Bamidbar 2017
Most years we read parshat Bamidbar on the Shabbat preceding Shavuot. And every year we say (or think), What’s the connection? And what’s in the parsha? A census. And another grouping and another grouping of the Israelites within their camp. One is tempted to say that this is busy work, meant to fill in the time before something really happens and the fledgling nation finds its way to its new home.
But we can’t be that dismissive. After all, this is the Torah and coincidences don’t just happen, so we must assume that there is a reason for whatever juxtapositions we find. So here are a few ideas to try to connect Bamidbar, the parsha, to Shavuot, the holiday.
The first one should be obvious. What have we been doing for the past six and a half weeks? Counting – counting the days and weeks as we move from Pesach to Shavuot. In the Torah there is no ulterior motive for the counting – we count and we are told to bring an omer of grains. Why? Because.
Just as we count the days, Moshe is told to count the people. And after they are counted they are divided into four camps (one to march on each side of the Mishkan when it is moved), and again we are told how many there are in each camp. And then we are told how many Levites there were, because the Levites were not counted with the rest of the tribes – they had a special status because of their work in and around the Mishkan.
Some commentators take these detailed lists as an indication that God was interested in us and how many of us there were and how we were organized. We were like the favorite marbles God collected and He wanted to see how many different combinations could be made. It can also be read to mean that each person had his place in the larger picture. Or a cynic might read it as a list that a person with OCD might prepare.
The next connection that can be made between Bamidbar and Shavuot relates to the content. Shavuot is the culmination after a transition from the glorious exodus from Egypt to the even more glorious giving of the Torah. Bamidbar, Numbers, the Desert, is also a transition from the glory that was Egypt to the greater glory that will be Canaan. The irony of this comparison is that in every encounter in which the Israelites express their dissatisfaction with the desert, they cite Egypt as the golden paragon of excellence, which makes sense as they have not seen Canaan yet.
A third connection between Bamidbar and Shavuot is negative, what is and what isn’t. Shavuot talks about a time when the Israelites will have their first harvest of the year to bring to the Temple, to the priests, and all will be glowing and growing and green and colorful. In the meanwhile, here they are in the desert where almost everything is either brown or white.
In the Torah reading for Shavuot we see a strong contrast between the Israelites then, at Mount Sinai, and now, in the desert two years later. There, waiting for God to reveal His words from on high, the people were united, unified – they were individuals of course, but their hearts were all united in this one moment of glory and revelation. Here in the desert, Bamidbar, we have a chance to take apart the whole and see the people – they are not all given names but we see that they are being treated as units within the whole and not as one whole unit. We have here the beginnings of individuality that, as we will see later, emerge fully blown in the book of Bamidbar in the form of Korach, Joshua and Kalev and Pinchas, among others. The whole is beginning to be broken down into its parts.
This week we marked – and continue to mark – one of the most momentous events in the relatively short history of the Jewish state – the Six Day War. 50 years ago we were all united in our fear of what might happen to the country, and then in our amazement and joy at what actually happened in six days.
But no period is completely black or white with everyone agreeing and experiencing the mourning or the elation. Documents released from 50 years ago show that our leaders were divided about what should be done and how we should behave before and after the war. In some cases, they had no idea of what was happening. Even then, voices were sounded about the potential dangers of taking over another people.
That’s the beauty of hindsight. It’s always 20-20. This means that certain decisions which people today say should have been taken in 1967 – were impossible at the time, either because we didn’t know certain facts, or because the facts in the field indicated that certain avenues of action were not options. Others say that we could have made better use of these past 50 years and of the opportunities to build bridges. But that’s all speculation and water under the bridge and spilt milk. The question today is how to maintain a Jewish state that is also as democratic as it can be in terms of its orientation and its behavior towards its citizens and other residents.
These questions and options bring us back to Bamidbar – the desert, where there is nothing and where everything is possible. It’s up to us in the country to make the best of what we have so that our children and grandchildren will be able to celebrate the miracles of our time and theirs in another 50 years.