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.


Now I’m Home – Parshat Bamidbar 5777


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.

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)]