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.

Piece By Piece – Parshat Bamidbar 5775

Piece By Piece

I am the first to admit that I have a touch of OCD. I can’t stand to see things unfinished. Parenthood has only exacerbated this affliction. Before I go to bed every night I have to make sure that Shiri’s toys are all put away, which means locating every ball and puzzle piece and making sure everything is assembled and in its proper place. Laundry time creates a similar anxiety. Missing socks are simply unacceptable; every sock should be in a pair. I have a tendency towards order instead of chaos, and I have a deep desire to make sure everything is accounted for and correctly placed. And yes, I have been known to tear the house apart looking for a small colored piece of plastic.

We often know our space by the way we set it up. Well all have routines, regardless of our level of obsession in sticking to them. You keep your books in a certain order or you sleep on the same side of the bed or you have a particular way you like to set up a new phone or computer. There is a calm and peacefulness to order, about which the Torah is acutely aware. This week we begin reading sefer Bamidbar, the fourth book of the Torah. Sefer Bamidbar begins with a census of the people and tells us more intimate details about the daily life of the Israelites as they camped out in the desert. Specifically in parshat Bamidbar we learn not only of the number of Israelites in the camp (603,550) but also of the main setup of the camp. Earlier in the Torah in parshat Yitro, we learn that the Israelites camped around Mount Sinai and the mountain that God had chosen was the center of their camp. In the middle of the camp is the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, where the stone tablets with the 10 Commandments are kept and where God dwells among the people.

Everything has its place, even in the ever-moving, nomadic camp of the Israelites. The census at the beginning of our parshah teaches that there were 603,550 Israelites in the camp. According to Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, a Torah commentator, this is also the number of letters in the Torah. Yitzchak teaches that just as the absence of one letter renders a Torah scroll unfit for use, the loss of even one Jew prevents Israel from fulfilling its divine mission.

We all count; without any one of us, our community and our Jewish world are incomplete. Parshat Bamidbar teaches us not to count one another, but to count on one another in order to build a strong and sustaining community. Here at Neveh Shalom, whether you find your place on the finance committee or ritual committee, whether your place is teaching in our school or sitting in the pew on Shabbat, we are simply a better synagogue because your place is here with us.

[photo credit: Project 365 #86: 270311 On Good Form via photopin (license)]

The Times They Are a-Changin’ – Parshat Bamidbar 5773

“Those were the days.”  We say it with a hint of nostalgia as we think back to yesteryear, remembering an especially great family vacation from childhood or the easy summer nights when the only rule was be home by dark.  When we think back,it’s often with a selective memory. That perfect family vacation was probably with great moments . . . and some moments that were not quite as idyllic.  We might not choose to recall that one fight,the bout of grumpiness, or a stubborn moment that briefly disturbed the peace.  Instead, we let the shining moments take center stage in our memories.

This week we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Sefer Bamidbar.  The Israelites are now in the desert, and the structure of their lives has been set.  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.

Continue reading

Center of Attention – Parshat Bamidbar 5772

As a kid I remember the long road to my summer camp.  As soon as the bus turned onto that dirt road, we would start to sing the camp song.  “We are on the road, to anywhere, never heart ache, never care…”  And we knew we had made it when we looked out the window of the bus and there, right in the center of camp, stood the main flagpole.  It was the first thing that caught your eye on the way in and the last image you had of camp on your way out.  This was the center of the camp.  Now, think about your home.  When you walk in, what is your eye immediately drawn to?  A family picture?  The television?  A mirror or wall hanging?
This week we begin reading sefer Bamidbar, the fourth book of the Torah.  Sefer Bamidbar begins with a census of the people and tells us more intimate details about the daily life of the Israelites as they camped out in the desert.  Specifically in parshat Bamidbar we learn not only of the number of Israelites in the camp (603,550) but also of the main setup of the camp.  Earlier in the Torah inparshat Yitro, we learn that the Israelites camped around Mount Sinai and the mountain that God had chosen was the center of their camp.  In the middle of the camp is the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, where the stone tablets with the 10 Commandments are kept and where God dwells.
Placing these tablets at the center of camp meant that it was the first part of camp seen as one entered and the final object one saw when leaving.  The Mishkan was the heart and soul of the camp, the central meeting spot.  And the rest of the Israelites’ camp was set up based on how it related to the placement of the Mishkan
The tablets contained the basic guidelines for living in the community.  Each person understood the central rules and regulations, what their role was, and what they needed to give in order for the community to be sustained.  The model put forth in our parshah teaches us that the Torah is the center of our community and also the center of our souls.  This model urges us to live with a focus on Torah, on actions that bring forth a greater good.
As this Shabbat ends we will begin Shavuot, the festival where we stay up all night learning in preparation for receiving the Torah.  We have the opportunity to open our hearts and receive the Torah this year as we do every year, but perhaps this year there’s more we can do to make the values of Torah the center of what we do.  Think about a year in which the first thing and last thing we think about each day are the values that make our families and our community better.
ללמוד  To Learn: ללמד To Teach: לשמור  To Keep  לעשות  To Do:  The Torah teaches us that as we prepare for a new adventure or new learning, we must first take stock in ourselves, a census of our values, goals and needs.  Only then are we of a free mind and clear heart to move forward with the best possible outcome.  Shavuot is the perfect time to renew your learning and take stock in yourself.  Use this long weekend to reflect on what you hope to gain as you receive new learning.