Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Once, my clergy assistant of years gave me one of my favorite birthday gifts ever: a coffee mug proudly emblazoned with the seal of the “National Messy Desk Society.”
I love this mug, because it perfectly describes my self-created work environment. Generally speaking, I know where everything on my desk is, but periodically, the mess grows so much that I can no longer be confident that I am on top of everything. That’s when I clean my desk to restore some semblance of order, and neat piles appear for a brief period. The cycle repeats every few months, until after a few years, I need to really clean my desk to the point where the surface is completely cleared. Then, for one glorious day, a sense of perfect order is restored to my office.
This week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar is all about restoring order from chaos. With the beginning of the Book of Numbers, we pick up our narrative right where it ended at the end of Exodus. Since we have spent so much time in Leviticus learning about priestly and holy ideas, we might need a little refresher on hamatzav – the situation:
The Israelites are still camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. We have received the Ten Commandments, survived the Golden Calf, and built the mishkan – the Tent of Meeting where God can dwell in our midst. We have been out of Egypt just over a year when the Book of Numbers begins. That means that people of Israel, until now, have been a mob of disorganized refugees, exposed to attack from marauders like the Amalekites.
Bamidbar begins with a detailed census, tribe by tribe, of the Israelite men capable of serving in the military, and of the priests of age to serve in the mishkan. The tribes are also assigned specific places in the camp, with the mishkan placed in the center. This creates a protective barrier for the entire camp, and for the Israelites when they are on the move.
By definition, slaves have no control over their lives. After generations of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites are finally beginning to establish order and control through the census and reorganization in Bamidbar. Never mind that Bamidbar means “in the Wilderness.” We need order most when the world around us seems “wild” or out of our control. So, with proper pomp and circumstance each tribe steps forward to announce the results of its census and to take its place among the free people of Israel. This is a great, even exhilarating moment. And it is absolutely necessary before we can begin the journey to the Promised Land.
Does this mean that the journey will be smooth?
No, not really.
Just as I create a mess on my desk every day, so too the ancient Israelites acted to bring less order and more messiness into their own lives once the journey began.
Not that we should be surprised
We plan, we organize, we create beautiful visions and strategies – and then, as we begin to act on our plans, life gets in the way. We deal. We adjust. We adapt. We reorganize and we try again.
Torah does not teach us that everything will be perfect, or even easy. However, in this week’s parasha, it teaches that we are part of something greater than ourselves – and if we read ahead, that despite the difficulties along the way, one day we will reach the land of Promise.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras