Where the Wild Things Are – Parshat Bamidbar 5771

As the weather continues to get warmer and the hours of daylight longer, you can sense that summer vacation is near while walking through the halls of our school.  While our learning is still in full swing, there are only a few days left of school, and it is clear that the students and teachers are ready for some unstructured down time without homework, early wake ups, or major responsibilities.  In our lives, we often go back and forth between needing structure, focus, and routine and needing freedom from those things.  Sometimes it’s a challenge to find the balance between these two conflicting principles.

The Israelites had the same struggle.  We remember that as they came out of Egypt and experienced freedom for the first time, they almost immediately wanted to go back to Egypt.  The freedom to structure their own days and move about with relatively few restrictions left them uncomfortable and uneasy.

This Shabbat we begin sefer Bamidbar, the book of Numbers, where we will learn about the Israelites during their 38 year stay in the wilderness.  In the previous book, sefer Vayikra, we learn about the ideal of human behavior, the idyllic discussion of how human beings should treat one another and how the Israelites will live their lives in accordance with this code.  When we arrive insefer Bamidbar, we see a stark contrast between those ideals in Vayikra and the petulant, complaining masses the Israelites revert back to.

Without instruction, life can get wildly out of control, but with too many rules and regulations, the Israelites cannot be themselves. So while it might seem like the Israelites are stuck in the mindset of the grass always being greener on the other side, the wilderness represents a place with endless possibilities; it is wide open and belongs to no one.  God chose the wilderness as the location formatan Torah, the giving of the Torah, because it is open to endless possibilities. 

We read parshat Bamidbar every year as we approach Shavuot, the celebration of receiving Torah, to remind us that the wilderness is not a place completely free from rules, regulations and structure, but rather, a place of open hearts and minds.  The Babylonian Talmud teaches in tractate Nedarim55a that the placement of this parshah and its connection to Shavuot teach us that one should be as open as the wilderness to receive Torah.  The wilderness has also been compared to God standing with open arms, ready to embrace.

As summer vacation looms, waiting just around the corner, we find ourselves again on the brink of freedom, but needing to balance this with structure and guidance.  The Torah serves as our guide through the wilderness, but it only works when we open ourselves up and are ready to embrace the teachings within.

Family Discussion Questions:
  1. Our “ethical covenant” teaches that an open mind and heart are the key to entering into a covenant with God and living a moral life.  How can you open your mind and heart to a new experience that might feel as strange as standing in the wilderness?What do you do during the summer to keep a sense of structure and organization to your days?
2.  What do you do during the summer to keep a sense of structure and organization to your days?

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