Parshat Bamidbar 2018
Let’s say you’re a tour guide preparing to gallivant around a foreign locale with 50 tourists in tow. What do you do before setting out? You count heads. You assign one person to make sure no stragglers are lost. You give the first-aid kit to another. Then with a smile (or grimace) on your lips and a prayer in your heart, you set out and hope for the best.
Welcome to Bamidbar. The desert. And also the fourth book of the Torah. We’re two years out of Egypt and slavery, we’ve seen miracles and received our book of laws, the Torah. Moshe is getting ready for the final push to the Promised Land, with 600,000 Israelites (or maybe 2 million) in tow.
But first, a head count. In a way, the rabbis point out, this is a parallel to the creation of the world. You have tohu vavohu, chaos – in this case the desert. There you maגe order by separating light and dark, sky and land, land and water. You created the various residents of the land and the water and the air, and then you went on.
Here, Moshe counts the people. At least the men of army age from 20 and up are counted for each and every tribe. The leaders are named. The tribes are then divided into camps which are assigned to specific places around the Tabernacle. And the Tabernacle is the domain of the Levites and Cohanim. So they must be counted and named.
All of the camp is thus counted and accounted for. Each person has his place and his job. The relish with which the parsha goes through the names and the numbers emphasizes that this preparation is part of the larger plan of coming to the Promised Land.
Each family has a role. There are expectations of each family, of each tribe, of each of the four camps to keep up its level of performance. The expectations with the concomitant mutual responsibilities kick in, or at least they are supposed to.
Early this week an article in one of the Hebrew newspapers recounted the story of the 1970 New York Knicks basketball team, the finest team ever to play in New York. Anyone who knows NBA basketball knows that the Knicks are a joke. They lose much more than they win. That’s the way it was in the 50s and 60s, until a coach came who imposed order. He made them play defense as they never had before. And they learned – that they had to depend on one another, to cover for one another, to become an integrated unit. And the result was teamwork, outstanding performance, and success. (Of course, the Boston Celtics had that all the time!)
In Bamidbar, the desert, the first two parshot deal with the integration of the parts – who goes where and who does what. And the climax is the dedication of the Tabernacle and the sacrifices brought equally by all of the tribes – a symbol of unity of mind and purpose that is rarely accomplished.
But we all know that maintaining such pinnacles is more difficult that reaching them. Try sitting on a physical pinnacle and very soon you will feel uncomfortable. The same happens with more abstract pinnacles. No situation is forever.
That’s what we see in the book of Bamidbar. The descent from the pinnacle is often much faster than the ascent. As a group there are complaints (again!) about food and desert conditions. The spies put such a spin onto their report that the people get dizzy and just want to go back to Egypt. And the people give in to temptation when the Midianite women flutter their eyes at them.
Even worse, personal ambitions and jealousies emerge. Korach covets Moshe’s place or Aharon’s place. Miriam and Aharon gossip about Moshe.
When we look at the way the book begins, at this convergence of purpose and dedication, the question arises: Why do we need the rest of the book? We’ll jump straight to the promised land.
Professor Arnold Eisen says that the tension between the ideal and the real reflects the dynamic nature of a nation. People will follow their stomachs. People are jealous. But in the end, all is regulated by our overriding covenant.
Perhaps that’s one reason that we often read parshat Bamidbar the Shabbat before Shavuot, the holiday marking the giving of the Torah. It’s a period of high hopes, of order and adherence that reflects the great event of the giving of the Torah. Perhaps we are being reminded that there is purpose and a definite structure to our nation and to our behavior, and more subtly, that in order to successfully traverse whatever desert we happen to be in and arrive at our destination safe and sound – we have to maintain the discipline that brought us together in the first place.
And so the desert and the Ten Commandments (the Torah) are two sides of the coin. Chaos versus order. And as we go through the book of Bamidbar, and the books that come afterwards, we will see that the coin of fate is being flipped constantly and it doesn’t always land on our good side.
But the coin is always picked up again and we, no matter what we have done as a nation, are given another chance. This is another lesson of the juxtaposition of Bamidbar and the giving of the Torah.
Let us hope that we learn the trick of how to come up heads as much as possible.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach