HERE

Bamidbar 5781

This week, we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Sefer Bamidbar. In Hebrew, bamidbar means wilderness or desert. In English, the title Numbers derives from the multiple censuses taken throughout the book. Bamidbar is a much more apt title for the journey that we will be taking these next many weeks, as we enter the liminal space and state of being that the Jewish people are inhabiting as they continue to negotiate their relationships to themselves and one another. We also read this Torah portion most years on the Shabbat before Shavuot, as is the case this year. Shavuot is the holiday on which tradition teaches that we received Torah collectively on Mt. Sinai. Our journeying these past seven weeks of counting the Omer parallels in some respects the journeys that the book of Bamidbar will guide us through over the next few months. Just as on Pesach/Passover we move from narrowness to expansiveness, from slavery to freedom, so, too, as we move through these weeks of counting the Omer, we are moving, day by day, towards the ultimate revelation of Torah in all of its fullness, challenge, complexity and joy.

Parshat Bamidbar introduces us to the messiness that is Sefer Bamidbar first in its opening census. Only men from the ages of 20-60 are counted, tribe by tribe. It is from this and other similar censuses in the Torah that the Jewish people have developed traditions and ideas about how to count, and who counts. We have a longstanding custom not to count people directly, as counting people is a means of commodification, of flattening their humanity. When we count, we tend to obscure the unique and irreplaceable individuality of those whom we count. Think of the statistics we encounter every day, how it is far easier for the human mind to grasp numbers than to grasp the enormity and often the tragedy and heartbreak those numbers contain. Traditionally, when a minyan for prayer is being assembled, we recite a verse from the Tanakh that contains ten words, understanding a minyan has been gathered once the final word rings out. Each of those ten individuals forming that sacred community and container are infinitely needed. So, too, are each one of us. In a world in which the enormity of human suffering and violence are too hard to bear, it is essential, now more than ever, never to forget that those numbers we encounter represent human beings, universes unto themselves, all of whom are infinitely precious, to G-d if not, G-d-forbid, to us.

The census that opens Parashat Bamidbar is quite dry and to the point, listing men of military age according to their tribal affiliation. When we liturgically read that census, are we nodding off or asking questions about the individuals whose names ring out year after year? Who are they? What were their lives like? Who loved them? Who cradled them in their arms at times of trial and at times of joy? What was their journey out of Egypt like? What stories do they carry with them? And what about the lives of those whose names we will never know, whose stories we have lost? How can we use the sacred gift of storytelling to unearth, with humility, that which is not found in the pshat, or simple/straightforward read of the Torah’s text?

Let us use our capacity for curiosity and wonder in a world so desperately lacking both, so that we may never forget, in our times of assumed knowing all that we do not know, all we must learn.






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rabbi.lauren.tuchman@gmail.com
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