Saturday night begins the festival of Shavuot, and we’ll be celebrating with all-night program featuring wisdom and stories from our residents, staff, and community members. (click here for more info!) Shavuot memorializes the Revelation and central role of Torah in our tradition. As with most holy days, the celebration also marks both beginnings and endings, helping us to navigate the transitions in our lives.
As a beginning, this week we read the first verses in Numbers (Bamidbar), the fourth book of the Torah. This parashah starts out with a few contextual details reminding us where the Israelites are within their journey from slavery to freedom. We are told it has been exactly thirteen months since they left their bondage in Egypt and having moved from beyond Mt. Sinai, embarked on their journey through the wilderness, towards the Promised Land.
Many commentators have focused on the nature and realities of this wilderness setting. The desert of Sinai and its stark, stripped down nature parallels the conditions we often experience during our own processes of transformation. The desert is a place of extremes, where the temperatures can fluctuate wildly and water, food, and protection can be hard to find. It is within these challenging elements that the Israelites transition from slaves into a free people.
The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, shared an insight about the wilderness setting drawn from the following Midrash:
Anyone who does not make himself open to all [hefker, literally “ownerless”] like a wilderness cannot acquire wisdom and Torah. (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7)
“The desert is neither public nor private space. It belongs to no one. It is completely exposed to the sun and the elements. So must we be – imply the Sages – if we are to become the recipients of Torah. To hear its commanding voice we must listen with total openness, absolute humility. Torah speaks to the soul that has learnt the art of silence.”
Studying this week’s parasha provides us with insight into how we can handle the challenges of navigating the wilderness of transitions. The book opens with the Israelites finding themselves staring out into the vastness of an unknown journey and it’s easy to assume that the next right action is for them to start moving forward, towards the Promised Land. However, they are instructed by G!D to pause and take a census of the community. Why, when they had been pushed, post-haste out of Egypt, would G!D require them to stand quietly as they complete this cumbersome administrative process?
Among the reasons given in the Torah to explain the purpose of this census: to account for size of the military and to help in organizing and planning other community responsibilities. Apart from these, as I look more closely at G!D’s instructions to Moses about the census, I see another reason why the census was the priority:
“Take a census of the whole Israelite community by clan of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head…” (Numbers 1:2)
Truly, counting community members is an administrative exercise, but I see it as more than that: This was an opportunity for every person counted (which notably doesn’t include women!) to be seen and accounted for, shoulder to shoulder, alongside their neighbors. Rather than just a numerical tally, an accounting by name means recognizing the unique value of each community member. Even more so: their ancestral house/tribe was also listed, further reminding them of their connection to their family lineage and history. This census-taking was an object lesson focusing each person on the past, the present, and the future; that they mattered, both as unique Holy Souls and as members of a community. G!D did this precisely at this moment of tremendous uncertainty: continuing to forge ahead at pace, still in the freshness of their freedom, would have drained their spirit, their resolve to continue on their inner journey to freedom; standing as one strengthened them as individuals and as a whole.
We are told that their harsh experiences in the wilderness forged them into a free people. The situation demanded the Israelites cultivate a greater faith in G!D’s direction to navigate the challenges they faced. However, as we’ll find over the next few weeks, this process was not a straight path and there would be multiple incidents when the Israelites fell into angst, despair, and ultimately rebellion. As many of us can relate, struggling to find our way through our own wildernesses of uncertainty often leaves us feeling isolated and ill equipped to handle the challenges we confront.
I do wonder how many Israelites were open to this lesson. Transitions and uncertainty can bring out some of the worst parts of ourselves, impeding our ability listen to G!D’s call. Perhaps it was Moses’ undaunted, confident voice and the leadership of those assisting him – as they spoke to each person, looked into each one’s eyes – that instilled in the Israelites the strength and G!D-trusting outlook which helped them navigate this moment with humility and openness. And perhaps the no-distraction setting of the desert was the perfect place.
May we find an undistracted space in which to connect to our past, our present, our future; to know more perfectly that we matter as we celebrate Torah and our place in its vast and marvelously connected community. May we act upon that knowledge as we set out on our own journeys – an end of slavery; a beginning of freedom.
Chaplain Adam Siegel