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.

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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.

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?