Linking the Generations - B'midbar - Numbers (1:1 − 4:20)
B'midbar - In the Wilderness
Numbers (1:1 − 4:20)
"… following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Eternal One spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: 'Take a census of the whole Israelite company…'"
As we approach the holiday of Shavuot, when we celebrate the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Sinai, the Jewish world syncs back up as we read the Parashah B’midbar.
While it is often difficult to find meaning in the detailing of a census, as with most of our texts, there is rich meaning beneath the surface. On the one hand, the modern concept of "census” is only one way to look at what was happening. Another interpretation of the Hebrew leans more toward a "raising up” rather than counting. For many, this sends our minds to thoughts of what it means to "rise up and be counted.” To take account of something is also one way to look at it – as is the idea of "taking account”. All of these should bring to the surface ideas of taking responsibility for something – or standing up and being recognized as a part of the community.
The richness of these divergent themes can also lead us in other directions. This book of the Torah we are now reading, B’midbar, or "in the wilderness,” has many commentators asking questions about the order a census brings – in the face of the chaos implied by the term wilderness. So whether one is being accounted for as a member of the Jewish community – and accepting all of its obligations – or one is being literally counted – the community is becoming more and more defined. We left Egypt as a people with a name but not an identity. With the arrival of the Mishkan and this this census – as well as the laws of Kashrut and Shabbat – our identity as a people is become more and more clear. This progression toward what it means to be a member of this community, is an important development in the evolution of the Jewish people and the Jewish tradition.
Still others use this communal identity – as a contrast to the individual accounting that is taking place all around them with the census. Some describe how this accounting places a focus on individuals to see how they fit as unique members of this Kehillah Kedoshah, our holy community.
What is interesting about all these interpretations, is that as we approach Shlenker graduation and Shavuout – a time when we celebrate Torah and Torah Study – these are the themes we have been imprinting on our older students especially. This idea of balancing the individual with the communal is in many ways at the heart of adolescence. Peer pressure, puberty, dating, acceptance, all take center stage with our students right now – yet we want them to take the mitzvot to heart and to make the right, or the good choice. Making good choices does strengthen them and the community, but it is often hard for them to see that connection. In our recent Human Development class with our fifth graders, our closing unit focused on how hard it is to make good choices in the face of the challenges that adolescence and adulthood bring. We spoke of the challenge however as a great responsibility that comes along with the gift of Torah. How to see yourself as B’tselem Elohim - and thus a member of this holy tradition - is a frame we found useful. It was a frame that helped focus our students on ideas like respect, dignity, and humility when it came to our bodies and our relationships with one another.
As Shavuot approaches, many Jewish communities around the world are asking graduates to look at the story of Sinai and see themselves at the foot of that mountain. We ask them to see themselves accepting the challenge and responsibility that leads to acts of kindness, compassion, and empathy. As are we all, they are unique and special – yet contain the same holiness as their peers and all those who came before. We ask them to be proud of who they are and who they have become – yet at the same time we ask them to be humble, to place the needs of others ahead of their own, and to be awed by the presence of God in our lives. We ask them to do this because we know if they can, they will have achieved the balance the Torah asks us to find.