Pulling Your Weight – Parshat Bamidbar 5782

I love being a part of a collaborative team. Nothing gives me greater joy and satisfaction than when I’m a part of a “we” especially when “we” are creating, bouncing ideas around, and supporting each other. It’s rewarding when all that work pays off in a beautiful end product that exceeds everyone’s expectations.

My one anxiety about teamwork is worrying that I’m not contributing enough or pulling my weight. If you’re not feeling creative or you’re struggling to complete a task, it can feel like you’re letting the entire team down. I value the hard work that others put in, and I expect the same from myself. By the same measure, I tend to hold others to the same high expectations I have for myself, and I struggle when those expectations aren’t met, despite the fact that they are my own expectations, no one else’s.

Being part of a team is really about the benefits of accomplishing something together. When we combine our strengths, it shouldn’t matter if all members are pulling their weight the entire time nonstop. We can allow moments when a team member or two can take a break to catch their breath without having the whole team fail or fall behind. Problems arise when neither the weight people pull nor the breaks they take are evenly distributed. We’re warned about this type of disparity in our Torah portion 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.

As the different roles of the tribes are laid out, we receive the lists of physical, mental, and emotional labor that each officer and their tribe must commit to in order for the entire nation to succeed. Notably in this list, those with titles like “Chief” are not exempt from physical labor.

Specifically, we find out Elazar, the Chief Officer, is assigned to guard duty. Elazar is one of Aaron’s sons, and he’s one of the highest authorities in the nation. His job is no ordinary desk job. Instead, he’s got hard labor. Why? Because according to the Jerusalem Talmud, “There is no special privilege in the palace of the king.” In other words, there is no room for an “honorary” position in the service of God. 

Judaism is built around the notion that each of us has a purpose and work to do in building and maintaining our society. Parshat Bamidbar reminds us that who’s on the team or who they’re connected with isn’t nearly as important as what you can accomplish together with the personnel and skillset you have.

Collector’s Item – Parshat Bamidbar 5781

When I was a little girl I was a collector of Madame Alexander dolls. I had an entire shelf dedicated to these beautiful dolls that I was not allowed to play with. There they sat, their boxes neatly packed away, clothes unruffled. Every once in a while I would take one down and admire it, then carefully place it back on the shelf. Did you have a collection like this? Maybe yours was comic books or baseball cards. With these precious collections the story tends to be the same. You search out and finally acquire a new special item. The first day that it’s part of your collection, you admire it, and then carefully, gently place it into the protective covering for safe keeping. Occasionally you might take out this item or others in the collection to have a look, and then neatly pack it away once more. 

While it sounds like this type of hobby wouldn’t hold a child’s interest, there’s something special and powerful about having something you take such good care of. This act of protecting, guarding, and checking in takes both dedication and self control. 

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.

As the Israelites are in their wilderness experience, God instructs Moses to count the whole Israelite community. The language used by God for this process is “lift the head.” In other words, each person is to lift up their head and direct their eyes and heart toward the heavens so that they can be counted. Lifting of a head also connotes a certain pride in who they are, and who their ancestors were. This act in this moment asks the Israelites to actively see themselves as connected to God.

But this also raises the question why is God counting the people? Doesn’t God know who they are and how many to expect? What is the purpose of this inspection? As an answer, a midrash imagines God as a collector of precious jewels. From time to time this collector might take out their collection and inspect each one, relishing in their beauty and uniqueness, tallying them up to make sure every jewel is accounted for, even if the collector is well aware of how many there are. 

When we collect things we often keep them in treasure jars or a protective wrapping. Sometimes we take them out to admire them or even just to make sure they’re still there. The census in Parshat Bamidbar suggests that regardless how you view God, each of us is a unique “collector’s item” in the world’s collection of humans. It’s also a reminder that we should recognize the uniqueness in each other. How different the world might be if we all saw and admired the precious, one-of-a-kind jewel within every one of us.

Role Call – Parshat Bamidbar 5780

Like most people, I wear many different hats in different situations. I’m a mother, rabbi, friend, youth director, sister, daughter, wife, avid walker, just to name a few of my roles. Where I get in trouble is when I’m wearing one hat while others are expecting me to wear another. Some time ago, my daughter came down with a fever while at school, and it happened to be in the middle of a terrible day for me. This extra weight was the straw that broke this mother’s back. To make my already grumpy mood worse, I took her temperature again when we got home, and it was normal (of course). And later that day when I needed to be wearing my rabbi hat, I was still wearing my frustrated mom hat, and this led to confused feelings and some mismatched expectations all around. The truth is, I’m all of these people all the time, even if I don’t feel like acting like it.

These days, it’s even more confusing, since I’m doing most of my job as a rabbi from home. The lines have further blurred between work life and home life. When am I a rabbi? When am I a mommy?

The Torah this week teaches us a similar lesson as the Israelites learn what it is to be a free society. This week we read from Parshat Bamidbar, the beginning of the fourth book of the Torah. This text brings us to an accounting of the people, showing us who each of the tribes are and what numbers they held at this moment. Each tribe is denoted with a flag which marks their territory. This is the beginning of an organized and well thought out society, a change from the free flow and uncertainty they faced leaving Egypt, and also a change from the tight restrictions they had while in Egypt. 

The text begins with a list of the ways in which the Israelites are to march through the desert and set up their camps. In chapter 2, verse 17 we read, “Then, midway between the divisions, the Tent of Meeting, the division of the Levites, shall move. As they camp, so they shall march, each in position, by their standards.” Logistically, this means that the Levites are broken into two units during the march, but the Israelite troops remain intact at all times.

However, another interpretation of “As they camp, so they shall march” could be that individuals should be the same person at home as away from home, in private as in public. True, my home and my family provide a safe space for me to let down my hair and let off some steam, but I’m still a mother and a wife when I leave the house, just as I’m still a rabbi everywhere. This is especially true now, when I’m doing much of my work as a rabbi from my home. That’s not to say I can’t express my emotions or vent now and then. The important thing to remember is that one hat doesn’t define you or anyone else. To be a well-rounded individual, you will naturally take on a variety of roles, but parts of you shouldn’t disappear just because you’re in a different environment or talking to different people at any given time. In other words, instead of removing one hat to put on another, wearing all of them (using all of your experience and expertise in daily life) means you’re truer to your authentic self.  

In the Crowd – Parshat Bamidbar 5779


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


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.