I prefer the window seat on airplanes. If I have to be stuck in an insanely small place for a long period of time, at least I can see the outside world. For me, the window seat is a compromise between the middle seat, where there’s very little room for movement, and the aisle seat, which tends to bleed into the chaos of the rest of the plane, like the unforgiving snack cart or the unobservant passenger. It may not be casebook claustrophobia, but it’s an irrational fear nonetheless.
On one end there’s the middle seat fear of having no control or way out, and it’s unsettling when it happens on the plane or anywhere else. Of course the opposite of total restriction isn’t necessarily ideal either. We learn very early on as small children that we do better with boundaries and set guidelines. Having too many options or choices causes chaos. A child will initially celebrate the expanse of options, only to have a meltdown caused by the overwhelming lack of structure. Parents, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
We see this same phenomenon with the Israelites. This week we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah, Sefer Bamidbar. This text brings us to the accounting of the people, showing us who each of the tribes are and what numbers they hold at this moment. Each tribe is denoted with a flag which marks their territory. This is the beginning of an organized society, a significant change from the free flow uncertainty they had after leaving Egypt and an even bigger change from the tight restrictions they had while enslaved.
This week the story takes another turn. Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, means “from a narrow place.” Egypt was a metaphorically tight place for the Israelites, filled with strict rules and laws and very little freedom to move about or guide their own journeys. Imagine the stark contrast of moving straight from this pre-liberated society to a place called midbar, the Hebrew word for the desert. The desert is a vast open expanse filled with endless (and unknown) possibilities. It’s understandable that this new world without boundaries would cause chaos and uneasiness.
The struggle between too many restrictions and not enough restrictions plays out time and time again, everywhere from business regulations to government power to the running of our own households. In parshat Bamidbar we see further movement (literally and figuratively) toward what a budding nation needs in order to give its people freedom, while keeping safety and security as top priorities. As I said, I prefer the window seat.