In the Crowd – Parshat Bamidbar 5779

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I am not a fan of large crowds. While I love sporting events, concerts, and theme parks themselves, I also have little patience for the slow way crowds move, I worry about the possibility of losing one of my children, and I can do without the loud noise and chaos. In college at the University of Michigan, the announcer at every home game congratulated us for being a part of the largest live crowd watching a football game in America. Being a part of a crowd of 115,000 or more each game day was equal parts exhilarating and exhausting for me. I always arrived early so I could find my seat, avoid the mad rush at the ticket check, and use the bathrooms before they got awfully dirty. And I always left before the end of the game to beat the mass of people walking back to campus, especially the slower ones who always seemed to get even slower amid the chaos.

Despite my aversion to large crowds, I can’t deny their incredible energy and their power to cause change. This week we read from Parshat Bamidbar, the beginning of the fourth book of the Torah. This text brings us to the accounting of the people, showing us who each of the tribes are, what numbers they hold at this particular moment, and the flag representing their territory. This is the beginning of a purposefully organized society, a big change from the free-flow of wandering in the wilderness and an even bigger change from the tight restrictions of slavery.

The text begins by listing the leaders of each tribe and the census of the people. There are 603,550 eligible males over the age of 20 counted. This number is identical to the census taken earlier in their first year in the wilderness. The figure also presupposes a population of more than 2 million supporting itself for 40 years in the Sinai desert. What’s incredible is these people formed a society, took care of one another, and traveled together. If I thought people leaving a football game in a crowd of 115,000 moved slowly, I can only imagine how frustrating this group must have been.

Yet somehow not only did they exist together in the desert, they also listened to each other and to their leader. They organized, supported, and moved together as a community. It might have been overwhelming, but it also must have been invigorating. Though we may not be quite as close in proximity all the time, we are a part of a crowd, whether that crowd is the local Jewish community or people gathered around their televisions to watch a series finale. As we learn this week, it’s not the size of the crowd, but how it supports one another that keeps it thriving and moving (if slowly at times).

Photo credit: Ken Lund from Reno, Nevada, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Your Three Words – Parshat Bamidbar 5778

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As I was writing Pirkei Imahot with Lois Shenker two years ago, we both challenged each other to come up with three-word bios for ourselves. We’d asked our other contributors for the same thing, so we thought we’d better do it too. I really struggled with this task. How would I represent myself in three words? Am I a “mother, rabbi, friend”? Am I a “mother, daughter, wife”? Am I a “teacher, learner, preacher”? I went through what felt like an entire dictionary of adjectives to try to describe myself in only three words. I always left the exercise feeling like I’d left out an essential piece of who I am. I am a mother and a daughter, I am a wife and a sister, I am a teacher and a preacher, I am a rabbi and a friend, I am silly and serious. Each time I picked one adjective, I felt like I was somehow diminishing another element of my being.

The truth is, as we evolve in life we go through multiple titles, multiple personality changes, and multiple identifiers. The Israelites as a nation are themselves experiencing this phenomenon as they have left Egypt and become their own nation. In Parshat Bamidbar, which we read this week, we read about the appointment of the leaders of the army that will guide the people along with Moses, Aaron, and the other leaders of the tribes. We learn of the accounting of the eligible soldiers over 20 years old, the special purpose of the tribe of Levi, and the order of the encampments for the travels of the children of Israel in the wilderness.

The order of the encampments is part of the process of God trying to set up a society that identifies the individual tribes and connects them to the greater community. In chapter 2, verse 2 we read:

The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance.

In this one verse there are three different elements of identity: the self (the standard), the family (the ancestral banners), and the community (the Tent of Meeting).

All this time I had been trying to pick three individual characteristics that define me, but perhaps our identities are threefold by nature. According to this text of the Torah, our identity is who we are for ourselves; how we connect to our home base, whether it’s the family that raised us or the family we choose; and our community, the places in which we congregate, celebrate, and share publicly. The real challenge then is not coming up with the identifiers themselves, but working to make sure each of these three categories supports the person you desire to be.

 

Now I’m Home – Parshat Bamidbar 5777

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Ever since I went away to college, I have adopted a regular routine for adjusting to new environments. I’ve created a certain order and process for settling into a space that I would call my own. I first make sure I’m technically prepared, with electrical outlets where I need them so my various devices can work. Then I unpack my clothes, shoes, and personal items, putting everything in its appropriate spot. Then, after all the unpacking, comes the decorating. I put up pictures of my family, I get my bed the way I like it, and last, but certainly not least, I hang up my University of Michigan flag. Whether in my home, my office, or a home away from home, I do not feel settled until each little piece of me has its rightful place in my space.

We each have those routines that help us feel grounded and centered, those items that make us feel “home.” Perhaps for you it is a special picture or a favorite stuffed animal or keepsake. This week we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Sefer Bamidbar. The Israelites are now in the desert, and the groundwork for the structure of their future has been laid. Army leaders are appointed to lead alongside Moses and Aaron, a census is taken of the people, and we learn that the camps are situated in a specific order, each with a flag in the center that tells us which tribe is there. The time spent in Egypt is a distant memory at this point.

The book of Bamidbar begins: “On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting.” The Israelites have left Sinai, the one place where they were certainly able to feel and notice the divine presence. They have moved on in their journey, and now they need a different way to connect with God. So what did God do? God transferred the divine presence from Sinai to the Tabernacle. This move shifted God’s “presence” from a sanctuary established by God (the mountain) to one fashioned by the people Israel (the Tabernacle). And unlike the golden calf, this shift was done under God’s direction. Nothing could replace Sinai, but this new portable Sinai was the next best thing.

The Israelites were able to be at home for so long in the desert because they were able to focus on the Tabernacle at the center of their camp. It gave them the sense of God’s presence they had at Mount Sinai, and more than just a physical structure, it was their comfort, their security blanket, their University of Michigan flag that allowed them to feel at home. We often try to force distance between ourselves and our material belongings; we dismiss property by saying “they’re just things.” But as Parshat Bamidbar reminds us, there is a holiness in those things because they bring us comfort and purpose. Because they bring us home.

Israelites and Window Seats – Parshat Bamidbar 5776

Window Seats

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.